A lot can happen in a week or so. Just 8 days ago, England were still in South Africa, very much a part of the World Cup. Fans of the Three Lions were swallowing up every spoonful of Sky’s Premier League propaganda; the country dazzled by a blind belief that 2010 really could be the new ’66. The “greatest league in the World” had contributed to creating “world-class” players for manager Fabio Capello, players the Italian would mould into a team to challenge the world’s elite. Yes, football really could be “coming home”.
Four German goals later and the haze that the Premier League has caused on the English public appears to be lifting. The stranglehold that the Premier League have over the rest of the game in England is finally being both recognised and criticised, and at long last, people are beginning to realise that Sky’s league is killing the national game.
Fans are crying out for fundamental changes in the game, and most of these changes are designed to put the national side first. From limiting the number of foreign players, forcing teams to field a certain number of players under the age of 21, or the ridiculous notion of the State pump funds into the game (this is the same game that already receives over a billion pounds in television revenue, the same game that can afford to pay wages of £160,000 a week to a plainly average Chelsea captain) fans are certain of one thing: they want to see the FA take control of the game back.
If you’ve followed my blog from the start, you’ll be well aware by now that there are elements of the Premier League I can’t stand. The ‘business first’ attitude sickens me, as does the fact the ticket prices are vastly out of reach of the working man. I hate the attitude that many Premier League footballers have, and just how far away from the rest of society they have become. I hate the fact that clubs would rather finish in mid-table than win the FA Cup (OK, an exaggeration, fourth isn’t strictly mid-table but you win exactly the same for finishing there as you do for finishing 17th, so my point still stands. So much for the “first is first, second is nothing” mentality, eh? Let’s see your fourth-place medals, lads.)
I also really dislike the clubs coming out on top in the club-v-country battle, something which is a potentially huge pitfall of the game. What has long-been accepted is Premier League clubs expect national associations to bend to their will. From criticising federations for playing a friendly, to suing them for players picking up injuries whilst undertaking the privilege of playing for their country, the self-interest seeps out of every pore. Clubs force players to pull out of squads with an ‘injury’, only for it to miraculously heal in time for the next Premier League game. Managers even complain about having to release players for competitive qualifiers, something that is clearly entirely detrimental to the national sides.
And whilst this leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I can at least see the manager’s point of view. Yes, it is pure self-interest, but in the current days when almost entire squads are international players, all it takes is a couple of injuries and your season could be over. What I cannot see however, is how that same argument can be used by clubs who are refusing to release players ahead of the Under 19s European Championships, which begins in France next week.
This is an invaluable opportunity for young players to experience the unique atmosphere of tournament football. We’ve all seen the potential pitfalls this brings, be it England’s apparent problems this time around, to the inevitable implosion of the Dutch squad at every major competition since the dawn of time. Squads being together away from their families is hard on the players, yet the more they are exposed to it, the easier it becomes. This offers the players a chance to prepare for that experience, whilst the tournament isn’t paramount of importance, and mostly away from the prying eyes of the media. In essence, this is a dress rehearsal for what is to come.
Not only that, but England’s future generation of players will gain vital experience that only playing competitive football can bring them. This is a tournament of some pedigree, and many of the players on display will go on to become full internationals. Indeed, there are great hopes over players such as Aston Villa’s Nathan Delfouneso, Blackburn’s Phil Jones, and Danny Rose of Tottenham, the winger who burst into prominence by scoring a screamer against Arsenal last season.
In a time when there appears to be a dearth of youthful talent, it is essential that the promising youngsters who are available are nurtured and allowed to flourish. That will not happen by playing for youth sides, or even reserve teams, as much of this squad would find themselves doing. It can only happen by playing genuinely competitively football. Without these players, England’s squad will be dramatically weakened. Indeed, some may question the value in even participating in the tournament without a full-strength side. But there is a more important question here than just the immediate issue of these championships.
If the FA cannot even win the battle with the Premier League over youth team players, what chance do they have of winning the battle for the top players? Are they really so impotent that they cannot even ensure the clubs release a bunch of teenagers for international duty? What power do they have to do what the fans have clearly indicated, and that’s pull the power back from the big clubs?
For anybody who felt the desperate disappointment of last Sunday, and never again wants to experience the embarrassment the Germans caused England’s top players, it is an argument to follow very closely indeed. “Club England”, it’s over to you.
November 25, 2009
Ah, good old Arsene Wenger. I get so much material from his comments, and once again one of his interviews has brought up another interesting topic. I actually quite like the guy, but sometimes he makes the odd quip I vehemently disagree with. He made such a comment just yesterday.
Club versus country arguments are tricky affairs these days, and Wenger has reacted angrily to a question about Theo Walcott and the World Cup.
“We do not pay players to go to the World Cup. We pay them to do well for Arsenal. The first pride of a man is to do well for the guy who pays you in life,” he said.
Now as much as I understand the sentiment, I cannot help but disagree. Yes, Arsenal pay the player, they coach him and they develop him. But if you were to ask any player ‘what do you aspire to?’, anybody whose first answer does not include ‘play at a world cup’ wants shooting.
I understand Wenger’s perspective. I appreciate it must infuriate managers when their star players are unavailable for weeks or even months at a time, even more so when they get injured playing for their country. A player getting injured in an international friendly must be the worst of all.
However, if you were to ask an English football fan would they rather their club win a trophy or England win an international competition, I believe 9 out of 10 would take the national team. And, quite frankly, so they should. (I’m not quite sure about Scotland fans, particularly when you take the Old Firm into account. It would seem Celtic and Rangers fans don’t want to agree on anything, so in my experience many have abandoned Scotland for the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland/England. But to avoid opening a can of worms, I’ll stick with England fans for the sake of this blog.)
Now Mr Wenger’s first loyalty is always going to be to Arsenal, and I would hope his players have the professionalism to be able to put the World Cup to the back of their minds. That being said, EVERY Premier League player should want to go to the World Cup. I believe Wenger would have got more out of his players by playing up the World Cup, not diminishing it. Indeed, Steve Bruce took that approach with Darren Bent, and that praise for his striker will lift his confidence and lead to better performances. It may even earn him a call up ahead of Heskey or Crouch. Indeed, if goals are the barometer for a striker, he’d be on the plane already.
One of my pet hates as a football fan is seeing a plethora of players pull out of international squads, normally at the request of their clubs. Manchester United used to be the biggest culprits. How many times was Paul Scholes removed from England duty because of ‘injury’, only to line up for United the following Saturday? Now many top clubs complain about ‘pointless friendlies’. I couldn’t disagree more. An international manager has maybe a dozen games a year to assess his squad. He needs friendlies in order to have his players gel before qualifiers and international tournaments. However, clubs pulling all their best players out of international squads MAKE the friendlies pointless. And I can give you an example.
England’s game against Brazil a couple of weeks ago had possibly 2 of Capello’s favoured 11. Because of that, England could not properly test themselves against the best in the world, the reason why the friendly was booked in the first place. (Well, that and an add-on to the Wembley friendly a couple of years ago.) But it was the actions of the clubs that made this game worthless. Yes, I accept there were a few genuine injuries, but how many players were back in their club sides the next week?
Trouble is, the clubs have so much power these days. I can see international friendlies becoming a thing of the past, simply because clubs won’t release players. But it doesn’t stop there. I seem to remember several clubs trying to stop players going to the Olympics and the African Cup of Nations. It’s ridiculous! Top clubs sign players who are internationals and then COMPLAIN when they play for their country! Mind-boggling.
The danger here though is if clubs can stop a player from playing in a friendly, then move on to the Olympics and African nations, what’s to stop clubs pulling players out of the European Championships or the Copa America? And then moving on to the World Cup?
Now some may say I’m being OTT. Fine, I may be a bit of an alarmist, but there’s a reason for that. There is nothing like international football for bringing the country together (or tearing it apart, depending on the result!) How much do we look forward to the World Cup/ European Championships, to large barbeques or days in the pub? How much do we enjoy the camaraderie shared with fans of every club, of congas in the street or jumping in fountains? How many of us have experienced nights we’ll never ever forget through the beauty of international football?
Those nights to me are sacred. The massive highs and the crushing lows that only come with the international game, and they MUST be preserved.
Portugal recently insisted Christiano Ronaldo reported to them despite Real’s protestations he was injured. I can’t but help applaud Carlos Queiroz for his standpoint, and if I was England manager I’d do the same. I think it’s time to end the sicknote mentality, and make clubs understand that national sides supercede all club sides.
Under Fabio Capello, England have a manager strong enough to do just that. Wenger can stick his bottom lip out all he wants, but Capello will undoubtedly pull rank if he has to. And that, my friends, will see the theatre of international football live long into the night.
Roll on June 11th.