Friday, September 5, 2008

International football was good once!

Before top-flight football began its inevitable slide towards death, international football used to be a real attraction. The best players would put aside their club rivalries and the sheer pride on their faces when they pulled on their national jersey was a joy to behold.

The last time I remember English players acting as though representing their country was the absolute pinnacle of their career was at World Cup '90 in Italy, when Bobby Robson's side were just a few spot-kicks away from the final, and a likely win against a ghastly Argentina slide.

Since then, apart from a brief glimmer in 1996 when the European Championships were held in England (which may explain the glimmer!), international football has become something of a turn off. Perhaps it's just an English thing, but the problem does seem deeper than that.

England, by rights, should be reaching the semi-finals of the two major tournaments - at the very least. How many other top-20 countries have all but one of their players (the increasingly immobile Beckham) playing in their domestic league? Surely it's none!

But club football has become more important - I now honestly believe a player would rather play in the Champions League knock-out stages than represent his country. A player's wage demands also seem to increase far more if they play in Europe than if they are an international.

Another issue is the transition of football from a sport to sports entertainment. It used to be nearly 100 per cent about what happened on the pitch. Now it's nowhere near that. It's a multi-billion pound industry where fans are just as interested in who is sleeping with who as who is putting the ball in the net.

The problem with football as sports entertainment is the hype that goes with it. Managers and players create "characters" in order to get the headlines. They exaggerate their own personality and have fun with it. When they start taking pot-shots at each other, the individual and character get so muddled it must make for some awkward moments come England duty.

And, without wishing to get too political, it's about a decline in standards. When England won the World Cup in 1966, one of the enduring images is of Bobby Moore wiping his muddied hands before shaking hands with the Queen. The players could hold their own in interviews and came across as thoroughly decent human beings. Now look at the current England squad...

So when England line-up against Andorra tomorrow, what will the players be thinking? Will all of them give 100 per cent, at the risk of picking-up an injury? By rights, England should score at least five, but will that happen? Or will they do enough and then take their feet off the gas, in order to keep as fresh as possible for their clubs?

And they wonder why fans are turning away from the games in their droves!