Theoretically, international soccer is the absolute pinnacle of any player’s career — proudly representing your homeland, fighting tooth and nail to get a result against other teams with comparable national pride. The thought of representing your nation at a major finals should fill your very being with immense gratification, and give any individual excitement jitters of the like you would expect from a four year old visiting Santa’s grotto.
Realistically, even the most partisan nationalist could not argue that this is the case. Former Arsenal and France midfield dynamo Patrick Vieira had this to say recently: “When I grew up, I wanted to play for the French national team. That was my target, my dream, and I don’t think this is the same for the Under 16s and Under 18s in England. I don’t think the young players are dreaming of playing for the national team anymore. I believe they are not as proud as they used to be”.
Ignoring the fact that Vieira has evolved into an overly opinionated footballing rent-a-quote, this is interesting, though maybe not surprising.
Vieira is not long retired. Despite this, he was brought up in an era of football when playing for your national team was the absolute pinnacle of achievement. The World Cup finals were the main event, the crème de la crème, the highest of highs or the lowest of lows depending upon your performance. It was the top level of football on the planet by a country mile. When the game of football first registered in my own psyche, the year was 1990. My earliest football memories were of World Cup Italia ’90: Gazza’s tears (and disturbing fake boobs), Lineker’s rifled equaliser in the same game against the loathsome West Germany team, Roger Milla’s dad-dancing and Diego Maradona’s brilliance. Compared to watching the early stages of the Rumbelow’s Cup the following season, there was no contest. It was a massive come down until Euro ’92 and USA ’94 rolled into my consciousness.
In hindsight, I can make some sense of this. The English Premier League commenced in August 1992. On the opening weekend of fixtures, there were 13 non-UK players. To add further perspective, one of those players was Ronnie Rosenthal.
International soccer was a window beyond the honest work rate of, with all due respect, Kevin Richardson, Carlton Palmer and Geoff Thomas. It was a chance to see, forgive me for getting sentimental, proper footballers who had the effortless ability to entertain, like Ruud ‘sexy football’ Gullit, Roberto Baggio and Romario.