Playing for England: glory or chore?
Why more and more Premier League players just aren't that fussed about playing international football.
Peter Crouch, we are told, is considering international retirement. It’s been a turbulent week for Crouch aficionados. But for sports columnists looking for proper controversy to opine about, it’s been dullness on legs. Apart from the slightly surreal news that Sepp Blatter might enlist Henry Kissinger and Placido Domingo as advisers, the spate of international retirements is pretty much the only talking point. Are modern players less patriotic? Has playing for England become more of a chore than an honour? Or is the retirement of a few bit-part players much ado about nothing?
There has been a fair amount of tut-tutting in some quarters that so many English footballers are snubbing the international call-up. ‘No matter what people think about individuals, you turn up regardless’, said former England midfielder Trevor Brooking. ‘It is about playing for your country. I would have turned up if I was number 23 in the squad.’ Sir Geoff Hurst, hero of 1966 and all that, who is regularly wheeled out to deliver ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ soundbites, has also expressed his disappointment. ‘I do not like it when players retire from international football long before their time is up. Where England are concerned, I have always believed it should be a case of, “Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.”’
Now, Spurs forward Crouch is considering taking the phone off the hook. What can you say about Crouch? Affable, by all accounts. Good feet for a big man, yes. But despite a decent goal tally for England, he’s never really convinced me that he’s an international footballer. Only nine of his 22 England goals were scored in competitive fixtures. Of those, only one goal, against Croatia in 2007, was scored against top-class opposition. In short, he’s a flat-track bully who will probably be remembered more for his freakish stature and buffoonish robot dance than his contribution to English football.
If Crouch does take his bow from the international stage early he won’t be alone. International retirement is positively de rigueur these days. Wes Brown, Paul Robinson, Jamie Carragher, Luke Young and Wayne Bridge have all made themselves unavailable for England selection in recent years. Paul Scholes is probably the role model for the modern generation of early retirees. He hung up his England boots in 2004 at the age of 29 while still in his footballing prime. Officially, he wanted to devote more time to his family and extend his club career. However, it is widely believed that Scholes was frustrated at being played out-of-position on the left by Sven Goran Eriksson.
Even though Scholes’ talents were wasted by successive England managers, his international retirement was undoubtedly a loss to his country. Barcelona’s Xavi said of the United man: ‘In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes.’ I’m not sure anyone will be losing any sleep over the retirement of squad players like Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge or Luke Young. Their retirement appears to be a fit of pique. Blackburn keeper Paul Robinson, who quit international football last August, was quite open about this. ‘I don’t see myself as a number three or four keeper and find that role very frustrating’, he said.
Ben Foster’s decision to take an indefinite break from England duty was, on the surface, more perplexing. Although Joe Hart has been the first choice goalkeeper since the World Cup, Foster was very much part of Fabio Capello’s plans. The England manager was, however, taken by surprise when Foster announced, via a statement on the Birmingham City website, that he was taking a break from the international game. The player himself said that the decision to snub England was purely driven by fitness concerns. ‘I’ve [had] a lot of niggles and little injuries that haven’t had chance to clear up really’, he told Sky Sports News. ‘Basically I just need to take a break when a break comes along, and when the international break comes along that’s the only chance I’m going to get.’
Unlike the recent retirements of fringe players, Wayne Bridge’s decision to quit England last February was made for very different reasons – namely that John Terry had been sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. That infamous furore saw Terry stripped of the captain’s armband and Bridge declaring himself unavailable for England selection. ‘It has always been an honour to play for England’, he explained in a statement. ‘However, after careful thought I believe my position in the squad is now untenable and potentially divisive.’
Are these retirements symptomatic of the diminishing status of an England cap? Geoff Hurst has questioned whether players still see an England cap as the pinnacle of achievement. ‘[P]layers are saying quite openly now that the Champions League is more important than playing for England – and I can’t understand their mindset’, said Hurst. The notion that representing England was more ordeal than honour was expressed by Stewart Downing after the ill-fated Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. ‘It was a bit of a chore’, he said. ‘People were thinking, “What is the point in me going down there and playing for England, I am only going to get booed.”’
It is certainly questionable whether international football is still the highest level of the game. The standard of competition in the Champions League is arguably higher. However, this doesn’t mean that an England cap no longer matters to players. Most of the so-called ‘deserters’ have quit because they don’t figure in the manager’s plans. Sulky, perhaps, but it doesn’t amount to treason. If Peter Crouch joins the exodus, no one will be mourning his loss. In fact, instead of worrying about whether playing for England is a chore, we should be more concerned at the dearth of homegrown striking talent which enabled Crouch to pass himself off as an international footballer in the first place.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.