Hello. Take a seat. Now, what did you want to see me about? You don’t want to play for England and can I give Roy Hodgson a call saying you’re injured or there’s a family crisis you have to deal with?
Well, first off I understand your misgivings about playing for your country. International football is tough, no doubt about it. It’s not just the standard of play but the lack of appeal of playing under a manager you hardly know, who has very different ideas to what you’re used to here, playing alongside players from other clubs who only last week were trying to hack you down and give you grief and who don’t get your style of play and then you’ll be probably playing against your foreign team-mate who you think the world of and trying to hack him down. I take it we’re playing against a second rate team known for their brutal style of play in a “friendly” of all things! You’re worried they’re going to commit a dirty foul on you, badly injure you and put you out of the next series of important Premiership and Europa Champions League games where your replacement will hog the glory rightly belonging to you. You’re onto a good thing at this club and you can reasonably expect to win a trophy here and there, get a good run in the Champions League but with England? Fat chance of winning anything! And then there’s the fans: You might play poorly one week here, but the home fans will forgive you in the long run. Get it wrong with England and they’ll boo you, abuse you and never forget any mistake you make. Remember Chris Waddle? Talented right-winger for Tottenham, Marseille and England? Good ball control skills, could get past opposition defenders and put in nice crosses? No? That’s because you remember the Chris Waddle who missed a penalty for England in Italia 90 and barely played for England again. International football is cruel, it punishes you unfairly and rewards you only sparingly.
But just before I pick up the phone and call Roy Hodgson, can I ask you something? Who do you think are the 3 greatest footballers of all time?
Ah, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona. Good choices but they all have one thing in common: They’ve all got World Cup winners medals. Interesting that you didn’t pick George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano and John Charles. All brilliant footballers but they never strutted their stuff on the world stage enough and so people don’t instantly think of them as the greatest. You’ve never heard of John Charles either? Well, there you go.
Yes, the rewards from international football are sparse…but the glory you get is greater. What image comes into your mind when you hear the name Michael Owen? Did you think about his goal against Argentina in 1998 or his hat-trick against Germany in one of those friendly matches you’re trying to get me to get you out of? Sure you did. Michael never won a major tournament medal for England but until the day he dies he’ll have fans eternally thanking him for those moments, he will never have to pay for his own drinks in a bar as long as there’s an England fan present and all because of those times he put on an England shirt and scored goals. Do you think David Beckham got to where he is today solely because of what he did for Manchester United or LA Galaxy?
You’ll be hacked down, injured unfairly, the fans will abuse you, the manager will pick you and drop you at a whim, the press will turn on you for any mistake and if you get it wrong you’ll be held up as an example of all that is wrong about the English game. Look at Jagielka and Cahill: At their clubs they’re heroes but now the press are saying that they’re awful and no good and symptomatic of a problem. Had they never gone to the World Cup they would have stayed heroes in everyone’s minds. I understand you don’t want to end up like them. It takes bottle to play international football, a courage that you don’t find at club level. It’ll test you in ways you haven’t considered. A stodgy 0-0 draw against Lithuania might be too awful to contemplate but those games will make you stronger in your mind. There are no comfort zones at that level. But it’s the shop window to the world about what you can do. It’s the theatre where legends are made. Club football will get you glory so far, but outside of your home supporters the memory of you will fade quicker than if you had pulled on your country’s shirt. No one remembers Toto Schillaci’s club exploits outside of Juventus; they all remember his feisty goals that got him a golden boot at Italia 90. Already there are dark mutterings about Ryan Giggs turning his back on Wales and it’s going to haunt him.
Have you got that courage or do you like it here at Club Med with your lovely contract, your sponsorship deals and a medical team to pamper you and put you back into shape? You’ll play here and there, go to various clubs and take your paychecks until you retire. And then they’ll forget you unless you go into punditry but those TV boys prefer to hire ex-internationals.
One last thing before I call Roy: I’m not going to make up an excuse. I’m not going to say you’re injured when you’re not. You’re going to have to tell him and the country that you don’t want to play for England. Man up and take responsibility for your choice. The fact you want me to make something up for him and for the press shows me you lack bottle. Maybe playing for England isn’t for you after all. Just be thankful you’re not Italian or German: You’d never make it home alive against their fans.
There’s no easy route to becoming a sporting legend.