With the World Cup on the horizon, we’re all expecting an exciting five weeks. There are some stereotypes of course – Germany will be ruthlessly efficient, France will throw a strop that’ll cost them despite having the best side, England will draw 2-2 with Tunisia and some nations will really, really want it more than others.
But why is that? Better professionals? Better fitness? No, it’s about national identity and the will to win for your country.
We consistently marvel at the Italians and how they leave everything on the line. The tournament will be worse off without them. It’s one of football’s purest values. Success may turn some heads and become the deciding factor in what nation to represent, but more often than not, it’s pride in one’s country that gets the extra ten percent.
For all that money ruins club football, international football should be, at least in theory, untouchable. It isn’t, but that’s a whole other argument.
Asmir Begovic and Xherdan Shaqiri are two examples of families escaping countries due to war and resettling elsewhere. The former left during the Bosnian conflict while Shaqiri’s family left war-torn Kosovo when he was younger.
Neither political dissolution nor self-realisation offer much in the way of foresight-laden projections, so it’s not always a straightforward decision for players to declare.
In fact, a key step in Kosovo even being allowed to participate in friendlies was a group of players including Lorik Cana, Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Shaqiri himself writing a letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
What we sometimes choose to forget is that footballers are human beings. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to grow fond of nations like Italy and various South American nations when they play on the grandest stage.
Despite all of them earning a comfortable living, some in grand surroundings, a connection to their identity is the key motivation when it comes to international tournaments. It’s why the World Cup outshines all other football competitions. For five weeks in a summer, we strip away the nonsensical, money-laden falseness of club football.
In a recent press conference, West Ham co-owner David Gold commented on Declan Rice’s eligibility to feature for England. Despite representing Ireland on a number of occasions already, he has yet to be capped in a competitive game, meaning he could still switch allegiances.
“I’m looking forward to the new manager turning Declan Rice into a strong England defender for the future of the England team,” said Gold.
Firstly, these aren’t green-tinted glasses. What Rice identifies as is completely up to himself and for a club official to even suggest such a thing is pathetic and disrespectful. The pressure on Rice to make his mind up is an indictment of international football and forces it to take a step towards the falsehood of the club game.
As players get older, just as we do, they can discover roots and traits that further forge their identity. If that’s intrinsically tied to a nation, then so be it. The rule about switching nations is there to protect the game from becoming about winning trophies and gaining prestige and sponsorship deals. It’s a must.
But players are not immune to emotion and identity, no matter how much the football industry, and not the game, tries to strip them of both.
In order to progress, we must respect footballers as people despite a commercial wave trying to drown them in a sea of cliche.