It’s been hard to love the England football team in recent years. Before every tournament final, if we have made it that far, the tabloids have whipped us up into a frenzy of anticipation, and expectation. Then we invariably stumble through the group stages before limping out of the competition, returning home to recriminations, apologies, and excuses.
That isn’t a reason to hate international football though. My own club’s history of underachievement, humiliation, and failure at the Theatre of Base Comedy (as Stuart Hall used to call it) hardly demands loyalty and affection. But while the odd fan may choose their team by means of how good they are, and how much glory they can associate themselves to, the reasons we do what we do go far deeper than that.
But consider this. Who remembers their first England game? Would you rather your team won the Champions League, or a promotion, or would you rather England won the World Cup? What football shirts do you have at home? Is your favourite ever player associated to your country or your club?
Club has always been more important than country for me, and I would say for most football fans in this country. I consider myself a patriotic person, but don’t channel that patriotism through football. Your club consumes virtually all your football thoughts, and emotions. They are your every day, the bread and butter of football – the matches you go to most, the team that plays every week rather than every few months, the subject of the Monday morning office chat, the allegiances passed down from generation to generation, the long history, the rivalries, the terrible transfers, the bargain buys. It’s tat from your club not your national team that clutters up the wardrobe.
Following your country is a different experience. It’s more remote and occasional. It’s harder to follow England – unless you live in London they don’t play near you, and unless you have a lot of air miles, it’s pretty expensive to follow them away. For most of us, it’s a support carried out in pubs and front rooms.
The days of players going to training on the bus and living near the ground are long gone of course – the bond with the fans at club level has weakened, the detachment widened, but the bond is still far, far greater than with a national team player. Maybe the split of loyalty depends on how big or successful your club teams are. Look at the flags at England away games, and you’ll inevitably see names of clubs from the lower leagues. England is football on the bigger scale, but without the bigger success to go with it (for now).
A search on google uncovered a Johnstone’s Paint Survey from 2006 that showed that 92% of fans said that their best footballing moments came from their club, not country, and 97% would rather watch their team play in a cup final than watch their country in an international (a rather loaded question, admittedly). 89% would rather wear their club shirt than their national shirt, and most importantly, 79% considered it a crime to get married on the day your club team is playing – and no one can argue with that.
It’s always enjoyable following England in tournament finals. For me I can support a team, and have strong feelings for that team, but without the extreme stress that following my club brings. And everyone around me is supporting the same team too, which makes a pleasant change every now and then. But it’s a spectacle too, a global event, or at least continent-wide, and I can get excited too at the thought of rushing home to see South Korea v Ghana live from Japan (ok, maybe that’s stretching the point a bit). Personally, there doesn’t seem to be the intensity either in many international matches. Steve McClaren may have proved otherwise, but many of the group games seem nothing more than processional, and it is only every alternate summer that we see real competition. Club football serves up brilliant games and intriguing contests every week for nine months of the year.
But what do the players think? Only the other week, Germany’s general manager Oliver Bierhoff said in an address to delegates at the Soccerex business forum that the Champions League has become more important than the World Cup for modern day players, whose career at the top might now only span four or five years.
“I think if you are a player now, at a big club, the Champions League is the one you want to win. Winning the domestic title is important, but the Champions League is the crown, the pinnacle. Twenty years ago it was more important for a player to play for the national team, financial-wise, than now. Now, he gets very well paid by the club and the club has a big interest that he does not get injured.”
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Not every player is just in it for financial rewards, but there’s little debate on what most club managers think of internationals. Friendlies are seen by many as a waste of time. Funny how their own friendlies and foreign pre-season tours don’t fall into this category. It is not just the clubs at fault though – the players themselves contribute by seemingly picking up mysterious “knocks” just before international friendlies – no doubt pressured by their club bosses. Perhaps the bond of the country is more important in other countries, perhaps for example in much of South America, for the fans and for the players. It would explain why the likes of Elano and Robinho perform better for country than club – you can sense the pride they feel when putting on the Brazil shirt, the shirt that is a potent symbol for the whole country. A light blue top and white shorts just didn’t do it for them. And whilst the likes of Ryan Giggs and George Best were no doubt proud at representing their country, glory and success could only be attained at club level, as they were obviously not tied down to playing for a particular team.
My argument relies on an England-centric view and on personal opinion – it may not be a view held around the world. National team success has helped boost a county’s morale, it has helped boost whole economies, it provides a feel-good factor that politicians would kill to replicate, but at the end of it all, it’s our club’s fortunes that generally affect our moods more than anything. And it tends to be our club’s results that define our memories and the eternal hope of what’s might be around the corner that keeps us supporting.
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