03 September 2006

European qualifying and you!

Due to the infinite wisdom of Sepp Blatter and the rest of the gold star organization that is FIFA, less than 3 weeks into the Premier League season we have our first international break. Players are just starting to get into the flow of the game due to an abbreviated preseason thanks to the World Cup, and then they’re off to play two qualifying games for a tournament nearly 2 years away. And loathe as I am to complain about a favorable group, England’s two games are against Andorra and Macedonia. Someone explain to me how is this good for the game.

I got into European soccer through the international teams. During my formative years as a fan, club football was pretty much unavailable in the States, and the USA was still nowhere near the world powerhouse they are today (ha ha ha). England in Italia ‘90 is my first real memory of European soccer, and the World Cup tournaments in 1990, 94, and 98 cemented my love of the game. Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in 1998 is the reason I started following Liverpool. But after years of delving deeper and deeper into Liverpool and the EPL, international breaks are ostensibly a waste of time, and the World Cup is a fun diversion during the close-season. Now, I just hope all of Liverpool’s players come back to Anfield without any injuries, and I believe most Liverpool fans feel the same way. Although scousers never have had a strong fondness for the national team.

England’s game against Andorra would be full of positives, if the game wasn’t against Andorra. It’s far too early to tell, but maybe I was wrong to believe that McClaren was a continuation of the failed SGE regime, and the FA would have been better hiring Scolari, Martin O’Neill, Guus Hiddink, or Mojo the monkey (pray for Mojo...). But McClaren appears to know what “tactics” are. He has also been unafraid to make the tough decisions, whether it’s pushing Beckham out the back door or moving Gerrard to the right to fit both him and Lampard in the midfield. After watching Fat Frank struggle through the World Cup, I was sure his pairing with Gerrard would never work, and was heavily lobbying for a midfield of Lennon-Gerrard-Hargreaves-Cole. But maybe McClaren knows something Sven didn’t. Actually, I hope there’s a lot of things McClaren knows that Sven doesn’t.

The new youth policy also puts Sven to shame. Erikkson’s youth policy was summed up by the aberration that was Theo Walcott’s inclusion in the World Cup squad. Not only did Walcott not play a single minute, but England was short of strikers throughout the tournament. But hey, according to SGE, he’s got experience now. I would like to see him get his experience at Arsenal first, but that’s just me. McClaren, on the other hand, has brought Jermain Defoe back into the fold, and he’s scoring braces against Andorra when he can’t get a sight of goal at club level. Aaron Lennon, Dean Ashton, Shawn Wright-Phillips, Andy Johnson, Darren Bent, Stewart Downing, Michael Dawson, and Luke Young all look to be getting more time under McClaren than they did under Sven.

As it relates to Liverpool, I really can’t complain about McClaren’s reign so far. The aforementioned switch of Gerrard to the right flank will allow him to do so much more for the national squad than he was allowed under SGE, it can only help him continue his development. I’m also actually pleased Terry was named captain and not Gerrard; obviously I believe that Stevie’s main focus should be on Liverpool. Michael Owen’s apparent obsession with the national team always contributed to scousers keeping him at arm’s length. That, and he turned out to be a taffy midget judas liar.

It’s also lovely that Crouchy has continued to score. I firmly believe he was one of the key pieces for Liverpool’s reemergence with his holdup play, and the additional confidence from not only scoring regularly at the international level, but bringing English fans around to his side will do him wonders. Which will be needed, as his place at Liverpool is severely tested with the arrival of Dirk Kuyt.

The international game is fantastic for raising the profile of soccer worldwide, but it doesn’t compare with the rivalries, intensity, and style of play of club soccer. More and more, club soccer is pitted against international soccer. Clubs are reticent to release players out of fear of injury. Compensation cases on behalf of the G-14 are making their way through the European court system. There are even arguments over whether or not a player is allowed to retire; Domenech's insistence on calling up Claude Makalele to the French squad for these qualifiers is a glaring example of this discord. International organizations are in direct competition with the clubs. Frankly, it seems England's international squad is slowly turning into America’s international basketball program. Both teams have some of the best players in the world and the strongest lineups on paper, but due to the emphasis on club sides, the cult of celebrity that follows the team everywhere, and the inflated expectations, both teams fail to deliver. And increasingly, I fear that the international game is becoming less relevant to the fans. And FIFA, UEFA, and the other relevant organizations are doing nothing to help the matter.

I really do blame Sepp Blatter. September 9th cannot come fast enough.

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