Why can’t Europe’s leading lights shine at major tournaments?

Portugal's Cristiano RonaldoFootball often throws up the most implausible surprises, yet there are some things in football that should happen, set in irrevocable stone. Real Vallodolid should beat tiny Alcorcon and reach La Liga. Steve Evans should never have been allowed to manage another football team. Cristiano Ronaldo should be the most impressive player at Euro 2012.

However, things do not always go to plan in football. After the craziest of seasons in the Premier League, we have seen the unpredictable nature of football grab our collective attentions and place us on the enthralling edge of our collective seats. At the European Championship, though, the fear is that once again Europe’s leading lights will go disappointingly dim after the travails of the league season.

The post-mortem following Holland’s disastrous defeat against Denmark has focused predominantly upon the failure of the nation’s most menacing attacking players to decamp with their festive attributes when it most matters. Sneijder, Robben, Van Persie: all magnificent throughout their respective domestic seasons, yet startlingly impotent in the famous orange.

Likewise, much focus was placed upon Cristiano Ronaldo’s mediocre turnout against Germany. Indeed, the issue of his inability to replicate glittering club form on the international stage is one which has been a perennial weight upon his broad shoulders throughout his career and a exasperating pest unlikely to be shaken in the near future. In fact, the issue is one which has characterised the club/country debate for many years now; why are the best players in Europe so frustratingly plain in the most illustrious of settings?

There is of course, the most obvious and cliched of explanations. Footballers play too much football. After a long, hard slog of a season, are footballers suffering from smothering burnout come the summer of an international tournament. Perhaps, though there may well exist deeper and more alarming reasons which compromise the integrity of international football.

Of course, the ‘winter break’ conundrum is often cited as a foundational reason behind a national team’s success. However, of the 28 players who featured in the 2010 World Cup Final, a quarter were at a Premier League club the season before. A similar trend was present at the 2008 European Championships. At no point was were the fitness levels of those players noticeable worse than their colleagues afforded a rest over the Christmas period.

The fact is that, on the whole, most players competing in this summer’s championships will had a similar amount of minutes on the field over the course of the season. There will be deviances as injuries, form and suspensions dictate differing levels of minutes played, yet the majority of players at the tournament will have accumulated corresponding levels of fatigue. Essentially, tiredness is not a sufficient vindication for the disconcerting degree of mediocrity on show at international tournaments.

Instead, the riches afforded through the prominence of the club game has resulted in the dwindling salience of international football. Playing for your country can simply not offer the financial incentives that the money mastery of club football can. Besides this, a glorified perspective of club football is driven into the football supporting conscience by the media and television companies, particularly Sky Sports’ rampant hype of the Champions League and Premier League. As such, all levels of football’s institutional structure is geared towards the promotion of club football over internationals.

Media exposure creates increased importance and interest, which in turn creates greater demand for club football; players and mangers alike must  then cater to this demand by pouring the majority of their physical and emotional resources into their club exploits. What we are left with is the vacant natural enthusiasm that all players should assume without endeavour every time they pull on their national shirt.

This is not to say that footballers no longer feel pride or motivation to play for their country; it is simply that an increased volume of their interests are forced into the club game at the behest of the altered footballing landscape.

There are also other contributing factors. Fatigue is undoubtedly affecting yet not the sole reasoning. The necessity of adapting to an often wildly varying tactical system may also affect a player’s game, whilst the absent comfort of regular team-mates must be a destabilising detail.

However, the increased gravity of clubs in world football has instigated a rapid reversal of previous trends whereby representing your country was the ultimate achievement. When the inevitable ‘why can’t England players replicate their club form’ argument re-opens come July, look no further than the relentless elevation of club football above all else.