England: The truth about national service

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Following his two goals against Bulgaria in Sofia, Wayne Rooney spoke to the media about his love of playing for his country.

Just 12 months previous, Rooney's expletive-laded rant as Fabio Capello's side were booed from the field following a goalless draw with Algeria was one of the defining images of England's woeful World Cup in South Africa.

While Frank Lampard's controversially chalked off goal against Germany may be the everlasting memory, Rooney's words produced a poignant message.

“What happened in South Africa happened," Rooney said. "But I am sure that the fans see for themselves that when I play I give 100 per cent.

"I have always loved playing for England – and I’ll keep on playing for my country until someone tells me that I can’t.”

It seems that only while playing for the England national team, would a player need to address this point.

You don't often hear the leading lights of Italy or Spain reaffirming their devotion to their country or making sure there is no doubt that they're giving there all. Surely it's a given.

Even for Rooney, a player draped in domestic and European honours, playing for his country should be the pinnacle.

That it's not, he's not solely to blame.

The financial incentives of qualifying, playing and winning the Champions League now outweigh the prestige of playing in the competition, while the trigger happy nature of football chairman means success is seen as a necessity rather than a luxury.

In the midst of all this glitz and glamour, clubs appear to consider international football to be an unwelcome distraction, a point proved by the European Club Association's demand to see the current 12-game calendar cut by half.

According to former England captain Paul Ince, players are now 'making excuses' to avoid playing for their country.

"If you get called up, you should make sure you're there. Nowadays, there are people who make excuses - they've got a knock, they're injured - because they want to be fit for that game at the weekend," he said.

"When I played for England there were players who were in that squad every month, or every competition, but [because of the Champions League and Premier League] we now have 40-odd players getting caps. It's sad.

"Sometimes, when I played for my country, the boss at my club has said: 'Paul, this might be one worth missing. We've got a massive game on Saturday and the Champions League game on the Tuesday.'"

So there's proof the club's aren't keen on the current system of international football being integrated within a full season, and on-top of that, the reception from supporters and the media mean many players find playing for England a chore.


Another former England player, Gary Neville, says at times he felt his international career was difficult to enjoy.

"There have been times when I reflected on my international career and just thought: 'Well that was a massive waste of time','' Neville said.

"Sorry for sounding sour, but my best mate, David Beckham, got butchered after the World Cup in 1998, then my brother, Phil, after Euro 2000.

"The whole lot of us got it in the neck at other times. Sometimes we deserved it, but playing for England was one long roller-coaster: some ups and downs, but also quite a few moments when you're not really sure if you're enjoying the ride."

You only have to look at the reigning European Championship holders and World Cup winners Spain, to realise that underneath their dominant possession game there is a team spirit which unites the squad like no other.

The 2006 World Cup was meant to be the stage for England's golden age to finally produce, but reliance on certain individuals led to them faltering against Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Apart from not being afraid to cull under performing stars, such as Fernando Torres, injury to any of Spain's leading stars doesn't affect how the team play, or invariably, the result.

While the England team five years ago was full to the brim of individuals fighting for the limelight, Spain have no such concerns.

"I just got fed up," said Paul Scholes. "When you are going to a team, you want to be part of a team and play well, but there are individuals who are after personal glory.

"When there is a simple pass of 10 yards, they might try and smack it 80 yards. They will do things to try and get themselves noticed."

"I always felt players at clubs like your Aston Villas try to use England as a way to get to a top club. Which, I don't know, you feel, 'Are they there for the right reason?' I think they are very selfish people.

"That is the biggest problem with English players – most of them are too selfish."

When three former players are all speaking in a concerned fashion about the plight of the nation team, surely it's time to admit that the issue of England's performance on the world stage lies deeper than whether they play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.

There's an underlying problem which needs to be addressed. First, the issue that club football is attempting to swamp the international game, almost to the point of extinction.

Combined with this, the players are now of the belief that international football doesn't hold the clout it once did, perhaps born out of Sven-Goran Eriksson's insistence to change his entire side at half time during his tenure and hand out international caps without question, which went to devalue the prestige of playing for England.

In some ways, after the call-ups for the likes of Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd, Capello has followed suit.

But perhaps the reasons behind such failure are far more simple, and that international football, behind the glitz and the glamour of the club game, isn't that relevant anymore.

"International football is no longer the pinnacle for players. The pinnacle now is getting the big contract, the Bentley and the blonde," said Roy Keane.

The challenge for the Football Association now is to fight to protect the international game from the pull of club football, appoint a manager with the guts to drop established individuals and who's strong enough to stick by his decisions. Then, and only then might former players, as well as current, have good things to say about their days with England.

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