By Mark Doyle
International football is dead. Or so we are regularly told. It is said that players no longer care about representing their country; that the pinnacle of any professional’s career is now the Champions League. However, the World Cup retains a unique allure, as this summer’s transfer dealings alone have already underlined.
When Steven Caulker surprised many a pundit by opting to leave Tottenham for Cardiff at the end of July, the England hopeful explained that the motivating factor behind his move was the far greater likelihood of regular first-team football in the run-up to the World Cup.
Caulker is by no means an isolated case. On the face of it, Luiz Gustavo looks a shoo-in for inclusion in the Brazil squad on the back of his performances in this summer's Confederations Cup, but the defensive midfielder still wants out of Bayern Munich.
Less than a year after Javi Martinez’s arrival at the Allianz Arena, Gustavo's chances of game time this season have decreased further by the acquisition of another Spaniard, Thiago Alcantara, from Barcelona.
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So, it is abundantly clear that the World Cup is having a significant impact on the thinking of every single top player in Europe.
Of course, the goal is to not only to make it to Brazil, but to get there in peak physical condition. This will be of particular concern to those currently plying their trade in England, because whatever one thinks about the Premier League’s boasts about being the greatest domestic club competition in the world, it can justifiably lay claim to being the most punishing. Indeed, in many ways, its strength is also its weakness.
The Premier League’s global appeal is primarily down to the break-neck speed at which the game is played in England. However, it is that pace of play which has so often rendered its players lifeless every time a major tournament rolls around. That is not to completely excuse the pathetic nature of some of England’s recent summer showings, but it was interesting to note that former national team coach Fabio Capello claimed that he knew before the 2010 World Cup that the tournament was not theirs for the winning.
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“I could see we were tired ... We tried to do everything we could. I spoke to the doctors and the physios but it was impossible to improve the situation.”
The worrying thing from England’s perspective is that nothing has changed in the interim. The calendar remains as congested as ever. Premier League clubs continue to partake in three domestic competitions, which is at odds with their principal rivals in the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A. It doesn’t help that the big sides invariably dominate every competition, putting an added strain on their star players, and the few Englishmen contained within that particular group.
The plight of the national team is a very hot topic within media circles, especially after the Under-21s flopped in Israel this summer. Gary Neville only this week advocated a restriction on the amount of foreign players English clubs are allowed to field, Jamie Carragher said foreign academy imports should be banned, and it is inevitable that the idea of a winter break will again be mooted at regular intervals this term.
It makes for a perfectly valid argument of course, given that while England’s elite are enduring one of the most intensive periods of their season, the Bundesliga’s best are taking a four-week rest in order to recharge their batteries.
However, calling for a winter break in England is an exercise in futility. Even Capello realised that. "It is impossible, but we have to change something before the next tournament.”
As usual, that call fell on deaf ears, meaning that even if Roy Hodgson does manage to qualify England for the next World Cup, his worries will really only just be beginning, as he'll then to have watch on helplessly for seven months while he waits to see exactly who will be fit to feature on what clearly remains - for coaches, players and pundits alike - the grandest stage of all.
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