It’s long been a debate about what is more important to players and fans, club or country? With the explosion, especially in the last ten years or so, of the Premier League as the most exciting, well-watched league in the world, and the riches and glamour offered by the Champions League, international football has very much taken a backseat. In fact, it’s become an inconvenience for managers who don’t want their star players injured in some pointless friendly against a small island nation. And it’s an inconvenience for fans, too, which see the momentum of a new season coming to a grinding halt several times a year.
English players will still tell you there’s no prouder moment than pulling on the famous Three Lions shirt, but even their priorities must surely have changed. Unnecessary, money-making friendlies to help repay the debt on the new Wembley have not helped with the fans’ disillusionment of the national team. Neither have misbehaving players and the endless, unfounded hype surrounding the team every time England goes to a major tournament and the inevitable failure in the quarter-finals. The England manager’s job has also become a poisoned chalice, turning Steve McClaren into the ‘wally with a brolly’, tarnishing Glenn Hoddle’s management career, and even transforming the respected, fearsome figure of Fabio Capello into a clueless, jabbering wreck. Still, it doesn’t stop managers wanting the job, which is bad news for Tottenham fans as Harry Redknapp has openly expressed his interest in taking the job once not-so-Fab goes.
The main problem is that England fans can’t connect with the players in a way they used to, when Gazza was lauded as a national hero, and Stuart Pearce was flying full-blooded into tackles. There’s also that iconic image of Terry Butcher soldiering on with a bloodied, bandaged head. Now there is a perception that football is all about money and the players don’t care, which is unfair, but it’s hard to warm to players like Terry, Rooney and Ashley Cole if they’re frequently in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Their misdemeanours wouldn’t matter so much if they did it in an English shirt when it mattered, but the Golden Generation has never been able to handle the pressure in big tournaments.
Another reason why club football has become more important is it’s often more exciting, with high-tempo, end-to-end matches performed in front of vociferous, passionate crowds. By contrast, England games are often dull and one-paced and it’s hard to get excited about what’s being seen on the field. Perhaps the corporate seats at Wembley have it right, coming out late for the second half because they know nothing of any value will have happened. The Premier League creates controversy, incident, intrigue, passion. International football, until it gets to major tournaments, fails to conjure up these emotions.
Certainly, in my case, I want my team Tottenham to win every game regardless of how they play, and if they don’t, I get a little bit depressed. With England, I just don’t seem to bother as much. If we lose or draw, I don’t really care. And if we win, but don’t play well, instead of celebrating I seek to criticise every aspect of the performance. I’m sure many fans probably feel the same – we’d support our clubs through thick and thin, we’re tied to them. It’s like a marriage, whereas supporting England is an unwelcome distraction, something you feel obliged to do.
On the other side of the coin, there is no doubt that the World Cup is still one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Only the Olympics is bigger, and most fans, deep down, would like to see England prove them wrong and actually do well for once. Until then, club football will dominate for both players and fans.