Prioritising club over country was a subconscious thing.
That was what Rio Ferdinand told Jake Humphrey on BT Sport following the Liverpool/Chelsea game. In a refreshingly honest and insightful take, the former Manchester United defender, along with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, explained how the so-called “Golden Generation” of English talent failed to bond as a team because their domestic rivalry was too strong.
Any number of reasons have been given for why this generation of talent failed to win anything. From poor tactics to the players being overhyped and not that good to begin with, there’s little agreement on why they failed, just a feeling of disappointment and regret that they did. As far as I recall, this is the first time that a lack of team unity and spirit has been mentioned so candidly. We always hear the accusations of the England team lacking passion for the international stage, but if what Ferdinand says is true, this was never a conscious decision.
It’s concerning to hear how club rivalry naturally trumped the England team. Ferdinand “didn’t want to be pals” with players he was playing against every week. He wanted nothing to do with them and what their clubs were up to. He makes playing for England sound like a formality he had to go through as a professional, rather than a strong personal desire. If the performances reflected this mental state, that assertion may not too far off the mark.
This isn’t to question the personal desires of the players when they play for England. Rather, I think there is something subconscious about it. English football culture builds football up as fierce competition and encourages a win-at-all-costs mentality. The demand is for the players to give everything in every game. There’s no room for anything else. There’s a level of obsession there that can boarder on the unhealthy. Players are looking for every competitive edge that they can get.
International football has always been a different beast. Any international manager must look for ways to unify a group of players who are, fundamentally, at odds with one another. For most countries, though, patriotism suffices as common ground for the players to come together. The key to Spain’s recent success on the international stage was Luis Aragones instilling that feeling of pride to play for their country. That was how a squad built from Barcelona and Real Madrid players – perhaps the most intense rivalry around – came together as a proper team.
When you see Spain, the lack of team spirit in England starts to look like a poor excuse. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, two icons of Madrid and Barcelona respectively, formed the defensive partnership that won Spain two European Championships and a World Cup. Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso played together in midfield. Whatever personal differences they had, and however strongly they felt about their rivalry, none of it mattered when wearing the red of Spain.
Gerrard raised the interesting point that for some countries, the international break is the best part of their season. He cited Brazil as an example. In their case, the fact that so many of their players are scattered about the world might work in their favour. They’re so far apart that club rivalry barely comes into the equation, while the opportunity to play for one of the most storied nations in football is one few are going to pass up. Yet, this seems like an exception rather than the rule. Spain, Germany, Italy and France won tournaments with squads where domestic players far outnumbered the players playing abroad.
In fairness, both Ferdinand and Lampard said that a lack of team bond wasn’t the only reason why England didn’t win. Each of them admitted that they rarely played at their best level in an England shirt, and only they would know why that was the case. Maybe they didn’t really want to play for England. Equally, maybe the manager at the time failed to get the best out of them.
The questions is, then: how do they make players care more about England? This gets harder to solve the more the team fails. England doesn’t have the history of success that a Brazil or Germany has, nor do they have the recent success of Spain. Domestic football in England has bloated in significance to the point that seven players pulled out of friendlies against Brazil and Germany to rest up for their next Premier League fixture. The money and the glory are there. The fact that the current youth teams have come up and won trophies together might help, but they, too, are susceptible to the same trappings.
I think there’s something to what Ferdinand said about being confident in the tactical approach to games. He spoke about how the team just knew they would struggle because they felt the system they were playing in was bad. This has been an issue for many generations. There is always a problem going into a big tournament. For Sven Goren Eriksson, it was the midfield of Gerrard and Lampard. For Fabio Capello, it was playing Gerrard on the left flank. For Roy Hodgson, it was trying to shoehorn Wayne Rooney into midfield to accommodate Harry Kane. For Gareth Southgate, it’s seemingly everything.
Meanwhile, there’s an unerring sense of clarity about the top nations and what they want to do. Hell, it’s not just the top nations. Even Iceland, as England discovered, had a clear idea about what they wanted to do and how they would go about doing it. Knowing this can have a galvanising effect on players. England’s own tepid displays could be down to the confusion about what is it they’re meant to be doing.
Therein lies another reason why club always comes before country for them. At club level, everything is clear. Ferdinand knew what he was doing at Manchester United, just as Lampard and Gerrard had clear roles in their Chelsea and Liverpool teams. Comfort can be taken in familiarity, while international football regularly takes players out of their comfort zones. The different tactics and roles that need fulfilling, the different people to interact with, and the different routine frequently prove too much for our players to deal with. Other nations may not have such issues because their players are used to change.
It’s a culture that cannot be changed overnight by a new manager. The demands of club football show no sign in letting up, and even now, with a whole new generation of England players, we’re yet to see a real closeness or spirt develop within the team. It was just recently that we saw no less than seven England players drop out of the squad due to fitness concerns. It was a clear sign, if we needed it, that club games take precedence, and that England will allow this to happen so long as it helps maintain good relationships with the club managers. Would this happen if players genuinely looked forward to playing for England no matter who they were playing?
The World Cup in Russia looks set to be another rocky one for England. All the hallmarks are there – the fact we don’t know our best eleven, or our best set-up, and have a serious lack of quality in key positions. We’ll hear no end about the team’s choice of base, and the psychology of being at a major tournament, so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone gets to the heart of the matter: club over country remains an insurmountable obstacle to national team success.