Following one of the most remarkable weekends in the English Premier League, a growing list of players have withdrawn from both the Under-21 and full England sides for friendly games this week. Stuart Pearce, England Under-21 manager, has meekly suggested a choice must be made between the EPL and international football. Unfortunately for Pearce the choice has already been made, 1-0 to the Premier League, and it didn’t even go to penalties.
Following England’s underwhelming performance at the World Cup last year and failure to qualify for Euro 2008 altogether, there appears to be an overwhelming dispassion among players towards representing the national team. This is neatly encapsulated by Ashley Cole, who was just voted England’s player of the year by fans. In that same year, Cole admitted he would rather win the double with Chelsea, than the World Cup with England.
This is not a concept lost on fans used to following their league team week in, week out, for the best part of ten months, alongside the sporadic national team appearances. Given a Chelsea fan, for example, has experienced considerable more success with them over the last ten years than with England, it is understandable how the national team can take a backseat.
Of course the majority of England fans represent a much greater population of fans who are not reveling in such reflected glory. For them it is an opportunity to enjoy the unity of national support and hopefully tap into a little national pride. However, this becomes more difficult when the chosen representatives are mostly collected from the same top teams whose focus is elsewhere.
The excuses players are citing to avoid Wednesday’s trip to Copenhagen are vague and mysterious. Players who apparently ‘suffered’ through 90 minutes as recently as Sunday (Steven Gerrard, Ben Foster & Martin Kelly), have discovered minor ailments. Gabby Agbonlahor (played 86 minutes on Saturday) couldn’t even be bothered to think of a phantom knackerage and cited ‘personal reasons’. No doubt there will be astonishing recoveries in time for Saturday’s next round of Premier League games.
Yes the game on Wednesday is a friendly, but the absentees imply the condescending attitude that if the game had significance towards a tournament, they could simply turn up and play together. No successful team has ever operated this way and, as has been proven by recent performances, that goes double for England. They need the practice.
Sadly, the only conclusion to draw is that, despite lip service to the contrary, current players no longer put any stock in winning an international tournament. Perhaps then we should follow through on threats to withdraw from FIFA, not because of indignation over the World Cup bid, but simply that we’re not very good, the players don’t care and are only counting the days until club football returns.