London (AFP) – Fuelled by the pain of past rejections and revitalised after turning vegan, Jermain Defoe insists he can defy father time by firing England to the World Cup.
Less than a year ago, Defoe feared his England career was over after Roy Hodgson ignored the striker’s fine form with Sunderland and left him out of the Euro 2016 squad.
Defoe was devastated and the blow was even tougher to take because Hodgson didn’t deem it necessary to personally deliver the news.
“I didn’t get a call. I found out on the telly,” he said.
“I still think about it. It keeps the fire in my belly because I love playing for my country.”
Despite the sting of that snub, the 34-year-old had always relished every opportunity to pull on an England shirt and he refused to give up hope of a recall.
Fast forward to Sunday and it was no wonder Defoe wore a smile as wide as the famous Wembley arch when he marked his first England appearance since 2013 with his first international goal in over four years.
Steering home Raheem Sterling’s cross with a typically predatory finish, Defoe opened the scoring in Sunday’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Lithuania at Wembley.
Well aware it wasn’t just Hodgson who regarded him as yesterday’s man, it was a cathartic moment for Defoe and the former Tottenham striker said: “I never gave up.
“Never once did I think ‘I’m going to retire from international football’.
“With the previous manager I didn’t really feel I was getting the opportunity.
“Last season I was scoring goals, but I wasn’t selected for the Euros even though I finished the season strong.
“I’ve worked so hard and I still feel sharp. I always thought if I did get selected I could still score goals at this level.”
– Welcome tonic –
Having scored 14 goals for Sunderland this term, Defoe’s strong showing against Lithuania suggests he will remain in England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans for the foreseeable future.
At an age when many of his peers have faded into obscurity, Defoe looks as sharp as ever and he puts his longevity down to a new-found commitment to sports science and his girlfriend’s successful attempt to make him go vegan.
“I’m into sports science. I want to do things right and looking after myself,” he said.
“I’ve got a better understanding of my body now. It’s stuff I don’t necessarily enjoy, but I’m trying to do it like I’m loving it.
“It’s working because I’m not feeling fatigued at the end of games.
“So it’s aquatheraphy, massage, eating the right things. I’m trying to turn vegan.
“My girlfriend said I’ve got to do it. She puts on these documentaries and stuff.
“It’s a funny one because when I go to my mum’s she’s got every meat you can imagine on the table.”
In an era when many young players seem to regard England duty as something to be endured rather than enjoyed, Defoe’s delight at his return to the international stage is a welcome tonic.
The blissful sensation of scoring for England in front of his family and the seriously ill young Sunderland fan he has befriended made everyone of those ice baths, tofu dinners and early morning fitness sessions worth the effort.
And he isn’t finished yet. Saving Sunderland from relegation would be a start and there’s still the possibility of making an impact at the World Cup next year.
“I don’t find it hard doing all this. I love the feeling of scoring goals,” he said.
“When I get in the ice bath I don’t want to do it, but I think surely I will be rewarded on a Saturday.
“My mum always said it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. I’m 34 and still scoring goals for my country.”
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