My first real memory of international football is way back in 1998.
My school, bowing to student and teacher pressure, decided to show England's matches of Euro '98 in the assembly hall, and we all dropped lessons for 90 minutes each time to see it.
I won’t lie; I remember it being fun. But it was also my first taste of what's bad about watching England in public.
Even at that young age, the stereotypical England fan that I would encounter so many problems with in later life, had started to form before my eyes.
Loud and xenophobic, with a poor knowledge of the game and a thrilled over-excitement at being able to support Premier League players instead of the names at their Championship clubs, the future "pub morons on England day" surrounded me in the school hall.
They cursed the finest athletes this country had to offer for not winning well enough, or for having their penalty saved in the lottery of the shootout.
The debate over Club vs. Country seems to have enveloped the planet in recent years, especially where England's concerned. Managers pull rank, players get belligerent, and "fans" that never normally express an interest in football, bicker.
I dread international breaks for the inevitable actual physical breaks and tears that my favorite players encounter against whichever "minnows" they happen to be facing at the time.
So, Club vs. Country. It seems like we should all pick a side, so where do I stand?
I've heard a lot of talk of this supposed "6+5" rule, which would limit the amount of foreign players in any given club match.
Unfortunately, even if my footballing sensibilities agreed with it—which I'll explain my thoughts on in just a moment—my social sensibilities wouldn't.
The rule will never be sanctioned by the European Union, simply because it’s actually illegal by its own laws. Freedom of employment in EU member states is crucial to the economies of EU nations, including the UK, and a cornerstone of the entire Union.
It would be incredibly simple for a club or a player to challenge such a FIFA rule in a European court, since player contracts are employment contracts, and as such are highly protected like all employment contracts, for the sake of workers’ rights.
Whether the tabloids like it, there are damn good reasons the EU courts exist, and football is a profession like any other, which must be treated—if you pardon the pun—on the same level playing field as anything else.
Aside from politics, I don’t agree with the 6+5 rule. This type of rule does nothing for a club’s academy, and only reduces a club’s financial value as they’re forced not to field players they’re paying salaries to.
Then the club would be forced to sell those players (in many cases at a loss in transfer value) to recoup money, and given that players are a club’s primary assets, that then leaves a club in trouble. I fail to see how severely damaging clubs financially helps them to produce young talent.
I also don’t see the problem in a system that has led to the development of youngsters such as Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Micah Richards, Ben Foster, Theo Walcott, and Aaron Lennon in the last few years alone.
John Terry and Frank Lampard grew to prominence during Claudio Ranieri’s “foreign invasion” of Chelsea, and Ashley Cole became Arsene Wenger’s first-choice left-back when he was recruiting half of France to play for Arsenal.
Furthermore, Steven Gerrard won the captaincy of Liverpool when Gerard Houllier was flooding Liverpool’s midfield with Europeans.
Do we really have a failing system as the doom-mongers say we do? All I know is that we have a current squad with a mixture of youth and experience, with generals like Gerrard, Terry, Ferdinand, Lampard, and Barry just peaking, old hands like David James, Emile Heskey, and David Beckham, and a whole crop of youngsters itching for their chance to impress.
England keeps on winning under Fabio Capello, an astute and intelligent manager (a rarity for England), despite injuries to major players and no place for former savior Michael Owen.
In my opinion, clubs shouldn’t have to look after the England team. International football came around a century after the first formation of English football clubs, and is still, when you take the mindless patriotism away, merely a sideshow every so often in between league campaigns.
Clubs pay player salaries, support them through injuries, nurture their growth, and hone their mentalities.
Yet they’re then expected to swallow the consequences when the national team doesn’t win the World Cup, and are told to be quiet when the star player they’ve paid £20 million for comes home with a snapped hamstring when he’s been played against medical advice.
For me, it shouldn’t be clubs being forced to fix international squads. National F.A.s should be doing all they can to help clubs, not punish them by imposing draconian and quick-fix “cure-all” ideas in order to simply pass the buck for failures inherent to the system.
It seems to be me that the "Club vs. Country" debate only seems to rear its ugly head when things don't go as well as English pub fans expect them to.
People frequently forget England won nothing in the 1970s and 80s, when there were few foreigners in the English game, but English club teams dominated Europe, and arguably they only won in 1966 because of a good manager, an easy run, and a few dodgy refereeing decisions.
Blaming "Johnny Foreigner" has always been the most convenient English excuse for all of our national failings after all.
Is it really up to Liverpool FC or Manchester United—companies in their own right who depend on having the best players in order to stay alive in the most competitive business on Earth—to fix the England team?
No, it isn’t, and it’s unfair to suggest so.
Something needs sorting, that’s for sure. But it shouldn’t be the clubs being sorted; it’s the fixtures, the attitudes, and the powers-that-be in English football that needs looking at.
And that’s where I stand.
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