Steven Gerrard's stark admission shows how lowly players value international game
The verdict was as near universal as it was inescapable. What happened in Montenegro was another little death for the idea that Roy Hodgson, any more than most of his predecessors, has any remote chance of making England a serious force on the international stage even if they should blunder their way to next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil.
However, there is a deeper question running beyond England’s appalling nose-dive and their manager’s lacklustre response. It is the one that asks: does international football matter any more?
Does it really figure so highly in the minds of all those players who are routinely told where the money is and where their main loyalty should lie?
Another question: would England’s captain, Steven Gerrard, have been so free with his embarrassing confession, “We stopped playing”, had he been discussing not a World Cup qualifier deep in the Balkans but a European club game or something of importance in the Premier League?
At places like Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield there would surely have been hell to pay for such a captain’s admission.
The gut feeling here is that Gerrard might just have been more mindful of the implications of such a shocking account of a performance which could cost England, for a second time in the last 20 years, a place in the finals of what some still like to think of as the greatest football competition ever devised.
This was England’s third successive competitive failure to inflict themselves on opponents ranked, respectively, 44, 57 and 24 places below them.
In each of the draws with Ukraine, at home, and Poland and Montenegro away, the English performances failed most critically in the simple matter of will. Frank Lampard did rescue England with a late penalty at Wembley, after they had been extensively outplayed, but in both Poland and Montenegro the national team squandered a clear-won advantage.
Whatever the reason for such implosions, whether it is a breakdown in mettle or a shortfall in talent or, most likely, a combination of both, it can only sprinkle more fuel on the theory that international football is increasingly marginalised in the minds of players.
The Rio Ferdinand affair was certainly for many a crushing statement of priorities.
After Sir Bobby Charlton played his last game for the reigning world champions England – a quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico from which he was catastrophically withdrawn by a Sir Alf Ramsey who later admitted it was his greatest mistake – he said: “Nobody needed to tell me my international days were over. I would be 36 at the next World Cup, too old for Alf, too old for anybody. So I packed my memories and told myself how lucky I had been to play all those games for England, to be a champion of the world for four years and how much I had hoped to have four more such years.”
Yes, they are recollections from another world. Now it is routine for leading players to retire from international football in order to concentrate on club careers.
When Roy Keane – a swingeing critic of England’s performance this week and in recent history – withdrew from the Ireland team just before the 2002 World Cup he berated the lack of professionalism of the Irish football administration and coaching staff. Some in Ireland and elsewhere were outraged that he walked away from his country’s team, especially after performing so brilliantly on the way to the tournament, but it was a defection that did not affect the warmth of his reception, at least for a while, when he returned to Old Trafford.
In that same World Cup, in Japan and South Korea, there was the most compelling evidence that the great tournament had never before operated so deeply in the shadow of the club game. Zinedine Zidane, the hero of France’s triumph four years earlier, arrived in the Far East exhausted and injured after leading Real Madrid to triumph in the Champions League.
The prospective chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, a key player in the creation of the Premier League, is on the record with his disbelief at the way the organisation squandered the chance to embed the rights of the national team in a new age of English football. Now he has to tackle the problem of the shockingly slight presence of young English players in the Premier League, the lowest representation of home-grown talent of any major European league. Unfortunately you sense that he will be swimming against an unstoppable tide.
The new importance of club football is maybe most dramatically reflected in the extraordinary rise of Spanish football with the historic achievement of three consecutive major trophies, two European Championships and one World Cup. The triumphs of La Roja have been immense but many would say that in the end they will be seen as still more reflected glory for the world’s most lauded club side, Barcelona.
Spain mimic the game of Barcelona, which preceded the all-conquering emergence of the national team. There is another departure from the past in that the world’s most celebrated player, Lionel Messi, has built his reputation entirely with his club.
There was a time when the world’s No 1 player announced himself every four years in the World Cup – players like Pele and Maradona and Beckenbauer produced their credentials and were promptly ushered into the pantheon of great players. Now Messi and his nearest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, have unshakeable reputations while, relatively speaking, hardly brushing against the tournament.
No one is saying that England consciously surrendered in Montenegro this week but there must still remain a question about the level of their motivation. They talked a big game but the delivery was woeful.
It was the same in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where performance was dismaying and not so surprisingly after we had been told what an excruciating experience it was to prepare for a few weeks in an isolated training camp in the high veld.
Down the road now is the spectre of 2022 in the sandy enclave of Qatar. Perhaps it is not surprising if some players question, however subliminally, the ultimate importance of the World Cup.