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Pride or Prejudice? The Club versus Country Debate

by Payal Dhar

On 2 April 2003, Stadium of Light, Sunderland, England, a crucial Euro 2004 qualifier between England and Turkey kicked off. In under 60 hours, seven of England's starting XI would be involved in one of the season's most high profile club encounters. Only this time they would be playing against each other - Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt for Manchester United, and Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard for Liverpool.

In fact, all the players would be involved in important league matches in the coming weekend.  Wouldn't we all dearly love to know how they cope with such situations? How do they tune themselves in and out of 'club' and 'country' modes?

Who Wins?

Players and managers conveniently quote 'professionalism' and 'duty' depending on the situation, but the club versus country conflict has threatened to get ugly in recent times. If you think of players as plain professionals - just doing a job no different from you or I and getting paid for it - the equation becomes simple: Clubs pay them their wages - sometimes as much as thousands of pounds a day to certain players - and therefore their loyalties should lie with them.

Is it fair then that they should risk injury in turning out for their national squads? Michael Owen had to come off with a back injury against Turkey that would probably rule him out of a crucial game for Liverpool in under three days. You can imagine that England's coach will not be on the Liverpool coach's Christmas list at the moment! Indeed, is it fair on Liverpool that their highest paid professional has probably been sidelined for an important game?

But ask any sportsperson and they will tell you that playing for one's country is the biggest honour. In a world where organized sport is professional to a large extent, is this silly sentimentalism? Or is putting representing one's country on a pedestal equating sport with war? David Beckham is not known for his sparkling wit and memorable quotes, but he may have struck the right chords in saying that it should not be so. In that case, who wins the club-country tug of war?

"Second" Priority
 
France and Manchester City striker Nicholas Anelka snubbed a national call-up because he did not like the fact that he was called up only after another player pulled out due to injury. His compatriot Mikael Silvestre from the other big Manchester club courted controversy by saying that players were mere pawns in the hands of football establishments, be it country or club, as the lure of money makes them put players at the bottom of the priority list. There have of course been instances of clubs putting pressure on players to cry off from internationals citing injuries.

Remember, we may not have heard the last of England's recent controversial friendly with Australia where they fielded a different XI in the second half. It is the football world's worst kept secret that some big clubs put pressure on England's coach Sven-Goran Eriksson not to tax their high profile players too much during the season's peak.

Killing with a Calendar

Ideally, there should be a 72-hour gap between games. That, however, is a laugh. Just after Christmas the schedule gets really hectic in the English season, where clubs participating in multiple competitions are regularly playing two games a week. When internationals come into the picture and teams have to be reformatted into different units, it gets really hard on the players. Yes, some of them earn more in a day than I have in five years, but they are after all flesh and blood, not nuts and bolts.

Not too long ago this season, Manchester United were involved in four club competitions, and Arsenal and Liverpool in three each. Arsenal and United have squads composed almost entirely of international players (and so is a significant proportion of Liverpool). It is no surprise, therefore, that both clubs have been at the forefront in calling for sanity in the schedule.

But stop for a moment to think of the smaller and mid-table clubs - the Fulhams and Southamptons and Manchester Citys. While the big guns are throwing their weight around asking to cut down matches, some clubs are complaining that they do not get enough games and that their players are rusty with lack of match practice. So, of course, there is no simple solution. The UEFA Champions League will be cut down from next season, but that is hardly going to affect the majority of the football world!

The European football year ranges approximately from August to May. Last year the World Cup was held in June, leaving players with just a month's break. Next year the Euro 2004 will take place in the summer, again making it a very hectic schedule. And don't forget, the qualifiers will keep happening to select 16 out of 50 teams currently involved.

Having the Last Word

It's no wonder that some people get sick of the entire debate and restrict themselves to just one arena. England's Alan Shearer - only 32 years of age - retired years ago from international football to dedicate himself to the cause of his club, Newcastle United. While we may argue till we are blue in the face about the morality of his decision, there is no question of what it has brought to his club-level performance. In fact, he has come into overwhelming praise for it from, it may be added, the same people who feel that representing one's country is the pinnacle of all acheivement!

 

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