This World Cup is the first where there appears to be a direct correlation between the patriotism of fans and the naked selfishness of players. The French have been a case in point, but the English have scarcely been better. It reflects a long-term tendency in the game to put the individual, and not the team, at its heart.
Truth be told, most top-level players see the competition as a tiresome anachronism that deprives them of much needed R&R between seasons. Other than boosting their egos, it offers little more than an opportunity to increase their earning potential and score a few petty points over club rivals. The world is not enough.
Its a far cry from the last generation of players, who—whatever you might say against them—seemed to enjoy playing for their country, and probably would have done so for nothing. Think back to that lovable cretin Paul Gascoigne crying his eyes at Italia ’90. It is hard to imagine such a reaction from one of the millionaire heroes of today, who are far more likely to leave the field with a snarl at the cameras or a face-on-elbow collision with one of their less well-endowed adversaries.
Twenty years hence, things are likely to get worse, with international football looking and feeling distinctly more like club football. It is already something of a joke when pundits speak of football “at this level”, as though playing for England were somehow a step up from the weekday variety. In all likelihood, the best players will soon be scooped up to play for the oligarchs and oil-barons who already control the league game; not least because many of these individuals actually have their own countries these days, so they could easily run off a few new passports. In such a world, our ethnic approach to selection will seem as remote and barbaric as the Divine Right of Kings.
But those who lament such trends need not be too despondent. Look how much similar star-catching policies have already done for the world’s less remarkable footballing nations—Algeria, USA and Slovenia, for example. With talented “overseas” players allowed into their line-ups by virtue of a few dubious…