After two years of controversy, double-speak, innuendo and off-the-record comments, Rio Ferdinand has finally brought his England career to an end by announcing his retirement from the international stage.
The Manchester United defender has reached the ripe old age of 34, but considering he’s currently coming to the end of one of his greatest seasons at Old Trafford, featuring in 32 fixtures in all competitions and making it into the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year, it is in effect yet another early retirement to add to a long list of Englishman who’ve made the decision to chose club over country, including Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer, Jamie Carragher and until recently Ben Foster, whom decided to reverse his decision this season.
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It begs the question as to whether we should be so accepting of our players opting out of international duty based upon their own personal preference, or if the media, Roy Hodgson, the FA and the fans should be exerting more pressure on the them to take their inclusion in the England squad more seriously. Should we be forcing the likes of Ferdinand, Carragher and co. to pursue their Three Lions’ careers for as long as possible, rather than prioritising the roles at their respective clubs first?
It’s no secret that the power of the Premier League, with its unprecedented levels of finance and multicultural inclusion of players from all across the globe, has had a pejorative effect on the English game. It’s plain to see in our current squad consisting of players who are quite frankly a far cry away in terms of quality from the previous generation of world class talents, with many such as James Milner, Ashley Young and Gary Cahill having rotational roles at their clubs rather than being integral, invaluable cogs and leaders like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard or John Terry.
In many ways, the early retirement trend is yet another symptom. The Champions League nowadays often outweighs international tournaments in terms of importance, and with the Three Lions a long way off the likes of Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina in terms of picking up a trophy, the Premier League title itself has become a far more realistic target for the members of the England roster. It is why, often during the international break, more than a handful of our best players suddenly report to the England camp injured, despite willingly carrying their minor knocks for weeks and months whilst playing football for their clubs week-in-week-out.
To bring us back to the case of Rio Ferdinand, whom also ducked out of international duty recently, citing his strict rejuvenation regime as the reason for his absence, is he likely to achieve more for England or for United over the next two years of his career? With the obvious answer being the Red Devils, its understandable why the defender’s loyalties lie with his club rather than the national team.
Furthermore, the fact of the matter in a capitalist world is that it’s the club who pay the wages, and every footballer in the modern era is a professional first and a footballer second. I’m sure no one would be happy seeing the United veteran’s career cut short by picking up a serious injury whilst in an England jersey, and in total it could quantify a difference in millions to the Ferdinand retirement fund.
Similarly, it is clear that the view from the player’s perspective is that being selected for England is more a burden than it is an achievement or a moment of pride. The huge pressure the fans put on the Three Lions is well known, and even our most talented players, the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Wayne Rooney, have spent the majority of their international careers having to deal with media scrutiny and constant criticism rather than being praised for their efforts on the pitch. There appears to be this self-perpetuating view of underachievement, which in turn only creates further below par performances. If a club were to have the same undesirable stigmatisms, can you imagine any of the England cast opting to sign for them?
The view that it’s more trouble than it’s worth was certainly a big part of Jamie Carragher’s decision to retire early in 2007. The Liverpool veteran felt that he hadn’t been given ample opportunities to prove himself by a succession of national coaches, being kept behind Sol Campbell, Ferdinand and Terry in the pecking order.
But his decision to make himself available if needed for international tournaments in many ways sums up the attitude that Three Lions’ fans find so frustrating. It seems that every player is willing to accept the glories of playing in a World Cup or European Championship, but not turn up for the rank-and-file matches against the lesser teams, and even more so for the international friendlies.
Similarly, Rio Ferdinand’s self administered absence from the ties against San Marino and Montenegro, only to fly out to the far east to work as a pundit for a match he had essentially opted out of, sparked a nasty reaction from the England faithful attending the match, singing in chorus; “Rio Ferdinand, we know what you are”.
The fact is that whether the England camp is politically divided or not by the apparent southern and northern cliques, and which side of the Ferdinand/Terry racism scandal a player might stand on, whether the players receive abuse from their own supporters, or are constantly bullied and degraded in the press, every England fan would give anything to make a single appearance in a Three Lions jersey.
In the past, it was always assumed that no matter what the quality, the players would give their all, yet over the course of the last decade, the same cannot be said for our current batch of stars, often lukewarm at best against rank and file opposition, and often lacking in the imagination, confidence and determination they show at club level against the titans of world football.
Yet, retiring whilst still having a few years left on the clock is not simply a recent trend. Alan Shearer retired in 2000, but went on to play for another six years at Newcastle, and similarly, Paul Scholes made himself unavailable for selection in 2004, and has gone on to be a central figure at Manchester United for nearly a decade since.
The knack of choosing club over country has always been there, and protesting against it will have little influence upon our stars making the same decision in the future. I have no doubt following Rio Ferdinand’s season that he would easily be warranted a place in the starting XI over Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, yet it is concerning that the risk of ending his playing days early by being stretchered off in an England shirt no longer outweighs the potential honour and pride that could be gained from being part of a successful Three Lions side.
But the fact is we are no longer successful as a footballing nation. Our players often come up short, our managers appear to be ineffectual in stopping the rot and the trophy cabinet has been bare since 1966. Meanwhile, the domestic league has gone from strength to strength.
The self-perpetuating effect is that the fans are constantly frustrated and the press is overly critical of every error or minor set-back; it’s made playing for England an undesirable prospect, a harsh reality as oppose to a Roy of the Rovers comic-book fairytale, and it’s no surprise that the players are now choosing club over country at every opportunity.
Rather than exerting pressure upon the players to continue their international careers, it’s time we realise our own contribution to the national team’s problems, and create an environment that our Three Lions’ stars will be desperate to stay in for as long as possible, even if it does come at the expense of the twilight years of their careers.