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Club vs Country: Is it right to blame the player?

The recent Rio Ferdinand controversy has re-raised the entire club vs country saga in football, the English game to be more particular. It has been an age-old debate and it’s nothing new to see a player shun his country to be able to continue the rigours of club football. Rio’s case is no different, although the way it panned out was akin to a drama with fascinating twists and turns.

Rio Ferdinand - club over country?

Rio Ferdinand – club over country?

England manager Roy Hodgson had recalled Rio Ferdinand to his squad for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro only for the Manchester United star to turn down his national duties. England were desperately in need of the experienced center-back, with a crisis of defenders due to injuries and retirements affecting the Three Lions’ back-line. Ferdinand withdrew from the squad stating that the routine of training, treatment, rehab and yoga that he undergoes daily to play for United doesn’t allow him to face up to the demands of playing two games in the space of five days. That he jumped onto a long flight to Qatar to commentate on the same matches makes it seem even more strange.

Ferdinand’s is the latest instance of a Manchester United star turning down his country to continue playing for the English giants. England have suffered in the past, with Paul Scholes, Wes Brown and Michael Carrick all shunning international duties to prolong their club careers, with stars like Ryan Giggs, Edwin Van der Sar,  Park Ji Sung and Dimitar Berbatov also following suit with their respective nations. It all boils down to one factor - Sir Alex Ferguson.

Is Alex Ferguson the reason his players choose club over country?

Is Alex Ferguson the reason his players choose club over country?

The wily old Scotsman never directly asked any of his players to reject their country in favour of the club, but just as in Rio’s case, he made it abundantly clear with a multitude of reasons why it would benefit them if they stayed back. This way he has managed to keep his stars within Carrington to devote their time and bodies to Manchester United.

But this throws up an interesting question. Is Sir Alex right?

It all comes down to loyalty. In football, the epitome of loyalty can be seen in Mark Hughes’ decision to play two games, a European Championship qualifier and a German Cup replay, on the same day! It depends on where the player’s heart lies. Nowadays, players earn a lot more playing for their clubs than by playing for their country. The joy in winning the Champions League has overtaken the pride of winning a World Cup. National pride seems to have lost its place in the heart of the modern footballer, with club achievements and personal glory taking the driver’s seat. The loyalty of a player is seriously questioned when money becomes a factor in any of his decisions.

The international football calendar was drawn up by FIFA by coordinating with the various FAs to avoid the issues of player burnout due to fixture congestion. International games are now played back-to-back, allowing national managers time with their respective squads, with the manager having a fixed set of players without the possibility of a last minute pullout barring something unforeseen. More and more players seem to be finding loopholes in the laws and rules so as to pull out of their national squads, with their club managers all too happy to let them do it.

Clubs, managers and players alike must realize that these international matches are the only time a national squad gets to play together and develop an understanding, so as to gel as a team. If players keep pulling out of games and squads like this, international tournaments might well lose their charm with all top players prioritizing club over country. A fine balance has to be maintained to keep the players happy and not irk the managers of either club or country. The World Cup is played every four years, with qualifiers far and few between.

So a player willingly pulling out of a national squad or under persuasion by the manager deprives the footballer of the chance of becoming a national hero. Young players out there look up to current footballers for inspiration. Players pulling out of their national teams without reason must understand that they’re setting a bad precedent for the coming generations of footballers.

And after this latest drama, Rio doesn’t seem to be headed for Rio, as an English player atleast.

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