Although the football season is officially in abeyance right now, there is still some football being played, of course. Most notable over the last week or so has been the European U-21 Finals which are being held in Israel this year. Today’s web pages and newspapers will doubtless be sprinkled with discreet amounts of can’t-really-be-arsed angst about how and why the England U21’s crashed out of the tournament after 3 successive defeats against Israel, Norway and Italy.
In case there are any regular readers here and in case they are under any misapprehensions regarding my attitude to International Football as played by teams representing a specific country, allow me to summarise…..
Essentially, whilst I will cheerfully watch some of the games in the big International tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros, I regard International football as a sideshow. The pre-eminence of club football via the Champions League and the sheer volume of ‘overseas’ players in the Premiership/Bundesliga/La Liga/Serie A in Europe mean that we now get to see the best players on the planet every week. It’s got to the point that if you switch on and see Lionel Messi wearing an Argentina shirt rather than a Barcelona shirt it seems a little strange. In short: International football? Who needs it?
There was a time of course when the only time you would see players like Pele and Jairzinho was wearing a Brazil shirt in World Cups. These days, FIFA try to puff up the international fixture list but they are undermined by the Champions League and major European Leagues and are in any case surely heading for a major PR and logistical car crash over the mooted 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Additionally, there is increasing friction between clubs and national associations regarding the availability of players for what are usually described as ‘meaningless friendlies’ in mid-season. More and more players are retiring from international football once they have secured a place on the European club ‘gravy train’, reflecting an attitude to playing for one’s country which is, at best, pragmatic and at worst, completely cynical. The old Corinthian values of the ‘honour’ of representing one’s country started going out the window around the time that Bobby Moore got arrested for allegedly stealing a bracelet from a Bogotá jewellery shop. Nowadays, players will pay lip service to those ideals but it’s debatable how many of them are actually sincere about it.
As for England, winning the 1966 World Cup was – as Dickens would have said – the best of times but also the worst of times. For all the gap-toothed glory of Nobby Stiles’ victory dance and Bobby Charlton’s combover angst, the fallout from that soggy Saturday afternoon at Wembley in July 1966 has become the cross that all England international players have had to bear ever since. The chances of England repeating their 1966 victory have receded year by year until there is now some doubt as to whether they are going to qualify for next summer’s Brazilian beano at all – and even if they do, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to win the tournament or even come close?
Even the television companies – usually prone to the worst type of hyperventilated jingoism – have noticeably throttled back their expectation levels during recent tournaments. There is a general acceptance that we don’t really have a good enough squad and that the most we can aspire to against the better teams is to be hard to beat and then (probably) lose in a penalty shoot-out. During the same era, from 1966 onwards, English club sides – albeit girded by the addition of choice imports from ‘foreign parts’ – have won multiple European club trophies and reached many more finals. Even ‘unfancied’ clubs like Middlesbrough and Fulham have had their moment in the sun. Little wonder that the glory-hunters of TV scheduling have chosen to concentrate on tournaments where English teams do have a chance of winning.
There seems no way out of this conundrum and it seems only a question of time before there is a major club versus country confrontation – a confrontation in which there will surely only be one winner. We are undoubtedly heading for a scenario where players signing up for the top clubs have ‘secret clauses’ in their contracts where they agree to ‘retire’ from international football. Come to think of it, this has probably already happened.
And so back to the small beer of the latest Ing-er-land debacle in Israel. Manager Stuart Pearce, who has always struck me as being a bit of a plonker, has come out and publicly blamed the players for their dismal performances, something that rarely happens at this level.
Generally we get some managerial double-talk about the poor standard of pitches, refereeing, facilities or (more realistically) the impact of a long season catching up on the players. Not this time, though – Pearce has – for once – not pulled any punches. The crucial phrase ‘already on the beach’ has been used to describe the players’ attitude, though not necessarily by Pearce himself. Clearly his comments are those of a man who does not expect to be in his current job for much longer – and probably rightly so. If he cannot motivate the squad and get them playing together effectively then he has no business being in the job. Then again, could anyone else have done better?
I am an avid consumer of U21 football at club level and thoroughly enjoyed watching United’s U21’s beat Tottenham to lift the National U21 League title, so I find it hard to understand why the only United player involved in the Israeli tournament was the incoming Wilfred Zaha, who isn’t really a United player yet as he’s only just arrived from Crystal Palace.
Having said that, 3 of that United squad – Sam Johnstone, Tom Thorpe and Larnell Cole – are in Peter Taylor’s U20 squad who fly out to Turkey today to participate in this summer’s U20 World Cup. I would have to say that I am surprised that the likes of Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe have failed to make the cut and am equally sure that Michael’s brother Will would have done so had he been fit. Whether Taylor’s squad will be any more successful and how the media respond will, I suspect, be largely dependant on whether there are any big transfer sagas unfolding at the same time. It says a lot that many English journalists will be more concerned about the destiny of a certain Portuguese superstar and whether he’s going to remain at his current Madrid address or relocate back to the glittering towers of Mancunia. The omens don’t look that great right now, but I live in hope…..