Russ Cowper on why he has decided to step off England’s hamster wheel of hype and disappointment.
On the 1st September 2001 Emile Heskey made it 5-1 in the Olympiastadion, Munich. The reds and blues gathered in my local almost lifted the roof off. Singing, dancing, drinking, camaraderie and togetherness ensured we revelled in the near humiliation of our great rivals. The magnificent German machine was in tatters, destroyed by an England team of great promise dominated by players from Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Watching the national team was an event, it was a must be-in-the-pub-with-the-lads day. The media waxed lyrically over this seismic event. This was the time that the promise of Italia 90 and the fabulous 96 Euros would bear fruit and the spectre of 1966 would be banished to the mists of time. They were heady days; cars with flags flying from windows and St George cross appeared to be hung from every window in the land. 2002 approached, Japan and South Korea was to be our destiny. The nation was driven to fever pitch and it was the media who led the frenzy. Then came the Metatarsal. England ceased to function as a nation and millions of football fans became experts on foot injuries. Even the Guardian resorted to diagrams of feet with expert commentary from Professors of Orthopaedics. I attach no blame to David Beckham: he was a mighty footballer and an icon to millions who became the story that fed the frenzy. This was the time my interest in international began its decline. It was not Beckham, it was the circus around him that began my questioning of the validity of international football.
During the tournament itself, England were dreadful scoring just two goals in three group games and a comedy exit to Brazil as Ronaldinho scored against a flailing past-his-best David Seaman. The frenzy turned to ugly recrimination.
From that point England began the decline; the hyperbole however did not. In 2006 the media replayed the Beckham saga and this time the recipient was a young Wayne Rooney. The Daily Mail reported at the time that he was stretchered off and there was only 41 days to the World Cup. No concern over the young lad, just raging hyperbole once again. Rooney got the full Beckham treatment. Perhaps I dreamt it, but at the time the story dominated every news bulletin and every newspaper headline. It piled ridiculous pressure on a young lad with a rare and precocious talent and it was no surprise it ended tamely. England went out in the quarter finals on penalties as Ronaldo clinched the win.
At that time my red friends had seen more than enough of international football and I didn’t grasp why. They had seen Beckham demonised, the ridiculous pressure on Rooney and the inability of consecutive managers to even play Scholes who in my opinion was the finest footballer of that England generation. Some of my red friends even took a perverse pleasure in Ronaldo putting the “ingerlund” out.
I kind of get it now. I understand their reasoning because now it’s happening to a player at my club. Raheem Sterling is being demonised by the very same media that cranks up the jingoistic fervour as a big tournament looms on the horizon.
There was a time I took great pride in players from my club representing England, from Mick Doyle and Dave Watson in the 70s to Micah Richards and Joe Hart of late. Being chosen to represent your country should be the pinnacle of a footballer’s career, but it appears no longer to be the case. You have the curious notion of players retiring from international football. I have no issue with it to be fair as a footballer’s career is short and precarious and if they put themselves first then fine. Footballers now appear to find fulfilment in representing their domestic clubs and the rise and rise of the Champions League has rendered international to almost irrelevant second or third level fare of offer. If Real Madrid entered the World Cup I’m sure they would win it. The power of the super clubs adds to the irrelevance because International football is no longer the pinnacle.
Fans I speak to look upon the international breaks as an intrusion; a weekend without proper football, a Saturday without a fix and a day spent wondering around IKEA of trudging round Primark. The internationals are viewed not as games but as 90 minutes of injury avoidance. And the rearranging of fixtures for a World Cup in Qatar is an affront to fans traditions. I have no problem with Qatar holding a World Cup but decimating our domestic season is not a price I want to pay.
International football is in the doldrums. It has lost its place. It is losing its affections and it is alienating the very people the game exists for. Its organisations are deemed corrupt and our game is now run for the few, not the fans.
As England apparently laboured to beat a limited but tenacious Malta side I sat reading with Talk Radio on in the background. It will take a huge change to entice me back.