…The International Football Conundrum

Before I launch myself into this with all of the enthusiasm I can muster (read: significantly less than the gusto they pack into a can of Red Bull), I’d like to clarify something. Generally, I like answers. When I write, I put forth an issue and then solve it. I might “solve” things in the same way duct tape “fixes” things but that’s good enough for me. If bodge jobs can take up 90% of the UK trade industry without apologising for it then I can do better. Up to a mere 89% of my resolutions can be worthless.

The problem for me is that I can’t find the correct answer today. As I’m bouncing the idea around my head I’m playing with a selection of arguments that keep countering each other until I admit my worst fear — there is no answer. There are preferable outcomes (which is the only thing keeping me on the correct side of a “clinically insane” diagnosis) but not a single, unifying answer.

Onwards, then, to the problem itself. The modern-day footballer doesn’t care about international football in the same way he did in eras passed and I’m relatively assured that this isn’t earth-shattering news. However, international managers find odds ways of moaning about it. Fans of international football, the sort of people who pay extra to buy items labelled “Made in GB” as opposed to the default “Made in China”, take it to another logic-defying level.

This week Craig Levein, Scotland’s manager, has taken some flak for encouraging Blackpool’s Matt Phillips to play his international football north of the border. Personally, I couldn’t care less. If I were to properly support an international side it’d be Cyprus — and I don’t hate myself enough to swallow such a bitter pill. I like England to do well simply because happy English people make my life a lot easier and I’m selfish in ways most people can’t imagine.

Nonetheless, as we’ve already established, some people do care. These people are now bemoaning yet another England “reject” playing for Scotland. They’re openly questioning his commitment — how can a 20 year-old who turned down his country be trusted? They’re also questioning his ability — why are we capping a 20 year-old who knows he’s not good enough for England?

Both, I think, are valid points. This is the International Football Conundrum. Thanks to Great Britain being an island, British people have tenuous links to all three of the nations if they dig hard enough. If you’re not quite good enough for England, who are currently the top-ranked British team, you might be good enough for either Scotland or Wales. If you want to stretch that to the UK and Ireland then you have a choice not too dissimilar to finding a new club. I’m not going to enter the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland debate because, quite simply, I don’t want to be killed.

Young footballers now have that decision to make. One that will never be acceptable to the fans and manager of the nation(s) scorned, nor, on some occassions, the fans of the nation they’ve chosen. In fact, and this is where I started to ask questions, what is the correct answer here?

I started from what I still think is a reasonable base — players should choose to play for the country they were born in and/or feel the strongest allegiance to. Counter point, some won’t be picked for said nation. For most, that’s fine. However, some players dream of playing international football. So what do these players do? Do they thank many years of inbreeding and wink suggestively at the other nations they’re eligible for? To me, that seems fair. I’d say the vast majority of football players don’t play for the club team they supported in their youth, yet they’re still capable of performing when called upon as professionals.

Again though, there’s an issue. International football isn’t the same as club football. In an ideal world, players should be completely dedicated and passionate when it comes to playing for their nation. Say what you want about Stuart Pearce (and I often do, but that’s another story) but England means everything to him. It’s his nation and I strongly suspect he’d die for it. On a football pitch. Cursing Germany to the bitter end.

Suffice to say, that side of the argument fades to an infinite loop: Do I (or anyone, for that matter) value a player’s commitment to playing international football as greater than his commitment to the nation he plays for? I have an opinion on this but it’s so incredibly insignificant in terms of the greater controversy that it bears no value in mentioning here.

At this point, I mentally pour myself a stiff drink and approach the conundrum from the other side. What happens to the players who are picked to play for the top-ranked nation that they’re eligible for which also happens to be their personal favourite? Effectively, at this moment in time, that’s a player who considers himself English, despite availibility for the other British nations, and is chosen for the England senior team. Wayne Rooney would be a good example here, as he also could have played for the Republic of Ireland.

Granted, there are less complications in terms of nation-swapping and questionable commitment but reality is raw — nothing’s perfect. Most people would say that the elite English players simply don’t care about their country more than their club. Jamie Carragher, although hardly an elite English player, admitted as much himself in his autobiography. Another dead end. To try and take some dodgy anecdotal evidence and formulate something resembling an understandable point, it looks like being blessed with such an opportunity also breeds complacency. If I were to be overly blunt about it, the players who get the aforementioned opportunity are already playing at a level which doesn’t leave them wanting more.

It’s been a long journey and a lot of questions have been asked. In order to tie up this sorry mess, I think I need to ask two more questions. Questions that have stepped forth as the most poignant:

Are the people who question players switching their national allegiances correct to do so? Can a coherent argument be put forth to answer that question?

The only answer I have is in reply to the second question and even then it’s not much. No, I can’t put forth a coherent argument. That doesn’t mean, however, that no-one can. My personal need to see a question answered hopes that someone can. For that reason, the International Football Conundrum will bother me for a long time.

Significantly, it hangs over international football too.