I’ve never had much time for the “club over country” debate which plagues every international break in this country. It’s a mindset that seemed to engulf our nation in the late nineties, back when the megabuck TV deals started to roll in and English football went truly international.
Alex Ferguson was the number one perpetrator of anti-patriotic rhetoric, his press conferences often featured rants about the damage international duty did to his squad. Every time a player returned injured or fatigued from international duty, a debate flared up over the timing of fixtures or the wisdom of including players considered key to clubs’ domestic ambitions.
Ferguson – among others – helped spread the club-over-country mentality, undermining the great sense of occasion international fixtures used to possess. Once considered the pinnacle of any football player’s career, international call-ups are now seen as an inconvenience by many football fans, overshadowed by moaning managers and fans who fear the potential consequences of additional fixtures or simply don’t care for international football.
Admittedly, the timing of this particular international break is questionable. I’m as eager for Leeds United to resume their schedule as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I resent the international break. I love watching England. I love seeing players with Leeds United connections stepping out for the three lions and I can’t wait until our squad once again features players deemed worthy of a call-up to the English national side.
I’m delighted for any Leeds United player who gets a call-up to their country, whichever country that may be. I’ll want their country to lose when they face England, but it’s a proud moment for the individual and the experience can only help them develop as a player.
Not all fans share my view however. True to the Alex Ferguson mentality, some Leeds United fans were pleased by Rodolph Austin’s red card for Jamaica, recognising that he’ll now miss the next international fixture and should return to Elland Road less fatigued than he otherwise would have.
They’re right, of course. Austin will return fresher and we don’t have to worry about him getting injured in the next match. But he’ll also miss out on another chance to fulfil his boyhood dreams of representing his country at the highest level of football. He’ll return a man guilt-stricken by the feeling that he’s let down the people of his homeland.
For Rodolph Austin, representing Jamaica at international level is the culmination of a life’s work. I’m sure 90% of the people reading this dreamt of one day representing their country while growing up, but somewhere along the way, we become jaded and forget what it must mean to those who did make it.
Modern football has done a great job of convincing fans (and players in some cases) that they must prioritise club over country. One of the great things about international football is that its free from the dominance of money. Qatar may be able to buy the rights to host a World Cup but they can’t buy the honour of winning it.
Yet the club’s who do battle by throwing mountains of cash at their starting XI to buy domestic honours have an almighty impact on the mindset of their players and fans. You’ve no doubt heard fans justify a club over country rant by pointing out who pays the players’ wages and they do so because managers and clubs are forever making the case to them, as if it’s somehow unfair that a player wants to represent his country.
Take this quote from Roberto Mancini, then Manchester City manager, talking about Vincent Kompany as an example;
“He didn’t play for us for 60 days and went to play for the Belgian national team. I did not agree with it. Sometimes managers of national teams should understand the situation. These players play for their clubs, and every month the clubs pay their salary.
“The responsibility is also sometimes with the player. Managers sometimes don’t understand the reality of the situation. But there are some cases when the club is more important, and all players should understand this.”
Money. That’s all the club versus country divide really comes down to. It didn’t exist before the Premier League era, fans were just as excited to see their players step out for international duty as they were for their club. England games weren’t prefaced by managers moaning about the potential consequences and fitness levels of their players and no one ever uttered the ridiculous “club over country” phrase. When I was growing up, no one expected players and fans to choose, it was always club AND country.
For Vincent Kompany, just as it is for Rodolph Austin, representing his country at international level is a great honour, one which Manchester City have no right to deny him of. He shouldn’t have to feel guilty for wanting to represent his country, nor should he have to explain his decision to do so. It should be self-explanatory.
Yet Kompany has unwittingly been cast centre-stage in the Premier League’s production of Club>Country and will hereafter be the subject of constant debate whenever an international fixture is seen to impact on his Manchester City career.
But not vice versa. No one in Belgium will ever question Manchester City’s decisions when Kompany is unavailable for selection because they don’t pay his wages. And in the modern world of football, money trumps national pride.