Imagine, if you will, that
every few weeks, you and a select group of people from rival companies were
summoned to work together on a special project for which none of you were paid
but which was considered more important than anything you could ever achieve in
your day-to-day job. Sound absurd? Welcome to the world of the international
Football fans are fond of reminding players how privileged their cosseted,
extravagantly rewarded lives are, but there are few things in the life of the
average working man that compare to the sheer strangeness of international
Think of the England players beaten by Croatia on that infamous, sodden night at Wembley in
November 2007. It was the most traumatic moment in English football since the
failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, and yet three days later the players
were all in action - Frank Lampard and Shaun Wright-Phillips jeered during a
routine 2-0 win for Chelsea at Derby; Steven Gerrard opening the scoring for
Liverpool with a stunning 25-yard free-kick against Newcastle at St James'
Park; Scott Carson betraying early nerves in a 3-0 victory for Aston Villa at
Middlesbrough. Could anyone fully digest a disappointment so profound and so
shocking in the space of just three days?
Conversely, what of players whose wildest dreams have materialised in the
international arena? Take Italy's squad at the 2006 World Cup. Unsettled by the calciopoli scandal, they arrived at the
tournament in Germany under a cloud and left with the biggest prize in the
sport. How do you motivate yourself to keep competing after you've won, against
all expectations, the most prestigious trophy you could ever win?
Perhaps the simple answer is that you can't. Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso
both lifted the Champions League trophy with Milan a year later - as did Marco
Materazzi with Internazionale in 2010 - but as the 14 players who participated
in the final left Berlin's Olympiastadion that night, they will have already
known that they had just reached the pinnacles of their careers.
British football supporters are accustomed to hearing players and coaches
complain about the demands of the international game, but what about those
players for whom international fixtures represent the highlight of their season?
Germany forward Lukas Podolski's occasionally disinterested performances for
Cologne this season have earned him criticism, but mid-table scraps in the
Bundesliga must seem like a massive comedown when you're closing in on the 50th
goal of a glittering international career at the age of just 26.
The different social dynamics at international level can also leave scars that
are invisible to the wider world. A popular club man may find an international
changing room a daunting and dislocating environment, while players can become
marginalised by dressing-room cliques. In his autobiography, Left
Field, Graeme Le Saux says his
early experiences with England left him feeling "out of place" and recalls how
"awkward" he felt whenever he found himself sitting on the 'United table' while
on international duty in the late-1990s.
For other players, however, meeting up with their international team-mates
feels like coming home. "It's like a breath of fresh air," remarked France
defender Eric Abidal last year. "With Les
Bleus, we're all always on the same
wavelength, with the same banter. We have a laugh at Barcelona as well, of
course, but it's different. You're not guaranteed to have the same feeling with
Argentines, Brazilians, Spaniards, Italians or Frenchmen."
A lot of things can happen to a player on international duty - both on and off
the pitch - and fans would do well to remember that the player who returns to
his club after the international break may not be quite the same as the player