Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Slow Death Of International Football

As England's Euro 2012 qualifier with Switzerland ended in a lethargic two-all draw, MARCUS STEAD reflects on the demise of what should be football's highest level.

There cannot be many people left who would disagree when I say that international football is now well and truly in the doldrums. I honestly can’t remember the last time I sat through an international match and genuinely enjoyed it. Last year’s World Cup was, for the most part, a miserable tournament full of utterly forgettable games. Actually, the same could be said about each of the last three World Cups, with a small number of exceptions. What was your highlight of, say, the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea? No, I can’t think of one either.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this has happened. Yes, FIFA must accept its share of the blame for making teams play with a ball that you’d be embarrassed to give to an eight-year-old child for his birthday, and for insisting that stadiums are built to meet certain criteria that make creating a decent atmosphere nye on impossible.

Some of the blame must lie with the attitude of the players themselves. In years gone by, youngsters aspired to become professional footballers because they loved playing football, had a passion for the game, and aspired to represent their club and country on the biggest stages.

Many of today’s young footballers have other reasons for wanting to make it at the highest level. They don’t so much love football: instead they love the wage packet and lifestyle that comes with it. Despite the platitudes we still hear about it being a ‘great honour’ to play for your country, does anyone really believe players treat it as the great honour it was in years gone by?

The clubs, working in a free market environment, should also surely take some responsibility for this. If you give a lad in his late teens or early twenties £100,000 a week, what do you think is going to happen? He’ll more than likely buy numerous flash cars, live in a huge house, and surround himself with sycophants. In no time at all, he’ll develop an inflated sense of his own self-importance, and believe all the hype that surrounds him. Not even the wealthiest person reading this can begin to imagine how different the world they live in is from the one the rest of us belong to.

Here in Wales, we’re long used to leading players pulling out of the international squad, only for them to turn out for their clubs a matter of days later. In this respect, I have some sympathy with the clubs. If you were a chairman or manager paying your star player an inflated salary, how would you feel if he risked getting himself injured playing in a meaningless international friendly a matter of days before, say, a Champions League quarter-final? The timing of the international calendar is, frankly, absurd.

Even on paper, the matches themselves look boring most of the time. I, for one, find it highly frustrating when the Premier League and Champions League schedule is halted for a week to make way for meaningless international friendlies. But it’s not just friendlies that are the problem. Even before the draws are made for the qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships, we are forced to accept the inevitability that there will be a fair number of matches against countries we’ve barely heard of, cannot point to on a map, and have little or no footballing heritage or prowess.

From a commercial perspective, there is no incentive whatsoever for Premier League clubs to bring through home-grown stars. These are multi-million pound businesses. They do not owe the English or Welsh FAs a favour. It’s inevitable that the pool of players available to managers of the home nations will remain small, and may well get smaller still.

So what hope is there for the future of the English national team? Well, not much really. The beginning of the end of the Fabio Capello era is underway, and fans of English football are understandably frustrated with the way things have turned out. But even on that wave of optimism when he took over in 2008, there were signs, from this side of the Severn Bridge at least, that big problems were around the corner.

The similarities between Capello and the then-Wales manager John Toshack may not be especially obvious, but look more closely, and it becomes clear the two men have quite a bit in common. Both have achieved success with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Indeed, at Toshack’s first spell at Real Madrid, of the 32 home games he was in charge, he won 28, drew four, and lost none. They still sacked him.

The other thing they have in common is that they have both had serious fallings out with some of football’s biggest players. In his managerial career at club level, Capello had major fallings out with Paolo Di Canio, Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldo, Antonio Cassano, and, of course, David Beckham.

Here lies one of the most important differences between club and international management. At club level, if a manager takes a dislike to a certain player due to a clash of personalities, he can put him on the transfer list, and bring in players who share a similar mind-set to his own. At international level, managers are constrained by whoever is eligible to play for their country, and they have to take what they’re given. With the influx of great and not-so-great foreign players into the Premier League, it’s not always that easy to replace one English player with another.

What do we know about Fabio Capello the person, and his life away from football? We know he is a devout, serious-minded Roman Catholic. We know he is closely aligned with conservative politics in Italy. And we know that he spends much of his spare time listening to classical music.

In other words, his world is a million miles apart from the £100,000-a-week bubble many of his players live in. Capello may well find aspects of his leading players’ private lives highly distasteful, but what can he do about it?

It’s true that when he took over as England manager he laid down the law on a few matters: he would always address players by their surname, and they would address him as ‘Boss’. He expected players to be on time, and when they were in training camp, they would always eat together. That’s fair enough (if a little too authoritarian for some people’s tastes), but he can’t very well tell them how to conduct themselves outside international periods.

To be fair to Capello, it’s hard to know how to overcome this obstacle. When Sir Alex Ferguson took over from Ron Atkinson as Manchester United manager in 1986, he laid down the law on day one. Whereas Big Ron had banned drinking two days before a game, Sir Alex made it clear players were not to drink at all when the team was in training. There was a heavy drinking culture at Old Trafford at the time, and Sir Alex rightly realised he needed to be firm about this, at least to begin with. He also made it clear that the players would have to change their ways, because he certainly wasn’t going to change his.

That’s all very well and good at club level, even today. The players know that if they fall foul of the standards their manager sets (as some did at Old Trafford back in ’86), they will be shown the door, and their big-money, celebrity lifestyles will be at risk. But what if an international manager tells them something they don’t like? They can always take a half-hearted approach to playing for their country, or ‘retire from international football’ when they’ve got years left in them at club level. It’s difficult to think of a way around this problem. Here in Wales, we went through a very similar thing under Toshack a few years ago.

International football can only ever succeed if all its various feeding components are pulling in the same direction: FIFA, UEFA, the FA, the Premier League, the clubs, the manager and the players. As it stands, commercial realities mean they are all pursuing their own agendas. There’s no obvious way to stop the rot, but unless radical change occurs soon, international football will continue its long walk into the sunset.

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