On the eve of England’s crucial European qualifiers, Steve Mclaren’s career as England manager could be defined over the next round…
Failure to gain maximum points will leave England on the brink of non-qualification and Mclaren surely at the end of a short stint as national coach.
England’s poor form has lead to cries of derision from the media towards both the players and manager, it seems confusing that England’s world class players are finding the path to Euro 2008 more of a hike than a comfortable walk in the park as so many envisaged when the draw was made.
England lie fourth in their qualification group at present, and although they should still qualify it is not a performance expected when there are 18 England international players in the current squads of the recent Champions League Semi finalists.
Casting an eye across the rest of the qualification groups there is a recurring theme with the European heavyweights also struggling; France and Italy are lying 3rd and 4th in their group behind Scotland with Spain in 3rd languishing behind Northern Ireland.
As good a job Walter Smith and Lawrie Sanchez have done, neither manager could have expected their teams would be ahead of the representatives from La Liga and Serie A at this stage of the qualifying campaign.
So why when teams from these countries are dominating the Champions’ League are their respective nations labouring on the international scene?
It may be suggested that club teams from these nations have a high proportion of foreign players. Although that is true, there is strong English representation of the English teams to reach the previous Champions League semi-finals and of the other team to reach this stage of the tournament AC Milan; 14 members of their current squad are from Italy.
The top national players are performing on a consistently high basis for their clubs, yet not matching this when pulling on their national jerseys.
The question can be asked that maybe the players’ once all-consuming desire to achieve for their national teams is perhaps not what it once was.
International tournaments are supposed to be the pinnacle of any sportsman’s career. Yet, it is difficult to remember a recent international tournament that lingers long in the memory for anyone except the winners.
The World Cup in Germany was no different, bar the dramatic quarter final between the hosts and Italy it will largely be remembered for Frenchman’s head butt to an Italian’s chest in protection of his sister’s honour.
Ronaldinho and the Brazilians were poor; although France reached the final Theirry Henry was a shadow of the player who led Arsenal to the Champions League Final… a player whose international statistics do not compare with those when in an Arsenal shirt.
The flair players appeared ragged from respective seasons competing on all fronts and a centre back was named player of the tournament.
The tendency of high profile players cutting their international career short is a growing trend, with the likes of Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer and more recently Jamie Carragher favouring a longer club career over and above international recognition.
The number of club games domestically and in Europe seemingly putt too much strain on players’ careers and something had to give with players putting an extended club career ahead of international recognition.
When recently asked about the failings of England in the 2002 world Cup, Paul Scholes replied ‘that it was just a blip in a stupid country where the World Cup should never have been played’. It would have been inexplicable that such disrespect would have been shown to football’s greatest showpiece 20 years ago no matter where the tournament was being staged.
The answer to the recent underperformance of the best players at international level may also lie in the popularity and uniqueness of the game of football.
The sport is different from any other in the world in that to be coveted as the best player in the world you don’t have to perform consistently for your country.
In Cricket or Rugby where club competitions are distinctly low profile in comparison to that of football, worldwide recognition only comes with performances against other countries on the international scene, the best against the best.
If you want to be regarded as the best 100 metre runner the only way to do that is at the Olympics on the international stage against the best from around the world.
This scenario does not equate to football where all of the world’s finest players are present and with the ever-present influence of Sky on the modern game, live footage can be seen from Berlin to Beijing. Players such as Drogba and previously George Weah who played for third world football nations can gain the acclaim of the football world through their performances among Europe’s finest in the Champions’ League.
In the pre-Champions’ League/Sky-era true worldwide recognition and acclaim could only be garnered on the international scene and in the World Cup finals.
The World Cup finals were where the best played the best once every four years. A chance to see Pele versus Moore and Maradona versus Matthaus but now with the expansion of the Champions League we are able to see the world’s best competing against each other week in week out.
When looking at last year’s Champions’ League fixtures with that of the European qualifiers staged within weeks of each other, there is no comparison, England v Andorra or Liverpool v Barcelona… I know which one I’d rather watch.
The amount of international games in which victory is a foregone conclusion also dilutes the overall quality of international football.
It is often asked of up-and-coming players in the Premier League whether they have the necessary quality to make it at the ‘highest level’.
Well, it is highly doubtful whether playing against a team of postman and farmers is a higher standard than competing in the Premier League.
Of course, their will always be players desperate to take as full a role as possible for both club and country, as indicated by Frank Lampard’s decision to play for England with a broken toe and David Beckham travelling half way across the world for an international friendly.
However, England is the only world stage left for David Beckham to gain worldwide exposure for his football talents as the MLS is a mere periphery on the football map.
So where does this leave Mclaren and England?
If all goes well between now and the summer, Mclaren will be lining up his weary squad to participate in another disappointing international tournament, with defeat on penalties likely.
Representing your country still remains a great honour, the pinnacle of a player’s career maybe no longer?