David Beckham represented England for 13 years, playing 115 times and scoring 17 goals. He played in three World Cups—acting as captain in two of them—and went to two European Championships.
One of the greatest moments of his career was a last-gasp free kick against Greece that sent the Three Lions to the 2002 World Cup, which, coincidentally, took place at the home of his domestic club…
For Beckham, there is no greater honor than pulling on a national team shirt. He told The FA in 2013:
“It’s one of the most special things you can do as a footballer. Playing for your country is one of the greatest honours you can have and to go to a World Cup is what you dream when you’re a kid.”
Historically speaking, international soccer has been the pinnacle for a professional. The World Cup is the greatest accolade for a man who kicks a sphere of leather for a living, and a duel between two huge soccer nations is as close to fighting a war that sport can become. It is patriotism. It is doing your best for the land of your birth. It is everything.
When I first started watching the beautiful game, I subscribed to the convention that international soccer trumps club duties. After all, you can’t win a World Cup with a club team!
However, as I received my first season ticket for my local team, Wimbledon, an unbreakable bond with my club was formed and I started to question the importance of the international team. On the first day of the Premier League season in 1996, I was sat in the stands as Beckham launched his career with his other iconic goal…
I also watched Michael Owen make his debut for Liverpool at Selhurst Park. I saw Frank Lampard try to beat my team when he was playing at West Ham and Chelsea. I saw Rio Ferdinand do everything he could to stop my team scoring.
There was something I simply couldn’t understand: why was I supposed to like these players when they wore an England shirt, but hate them while they were trying to beat my club team?
For me, club football triumphs over the international game every single time, without question. I will watch every single England game and I’m happy when they score, but I’m so much happier when Wimbledon put one in the back of the net.
In most cases, supporting a club is about being a part of its community. You buy into its values, you keep the lights on through buying shirts and tickets and you bleed its colors.
For those who do not live anywhere near the club they follow, there is the benefit of freewill. You didn’t have any choice in your national team, but you were able to pick from thousands of viable clubs to support. In an age where there are countless ways to spend our leisure time, choice is king.
There’s also the fact that you spend more time with your club than your national team. England, for example, played 10 games in 2015 and 13 in 2014. In most cases, your club will play more than 50 games a year. (And when international breaks come during the season, there’s a good chance that you are frustrated by the break in the action!)
To see where you stand on the issue, have a think about this question: Would you be hurting for longer if your national team was eliminated from the World Cup or if your club got relegated? I know what my answer would be.
There has always been a dichotomy between club and international support, but in recent years, it’s not just fans who have questioned their preference: it seems that players are also favoring the domestic side of things. While players used to give everything they had for their respective national teams, now it seems that the domestic game has taken priority.
These days, a strong performance at an international tournament only seems to serve as a shop window for players who want to move to bigger clubs—think of Mesut Ozil earning his move to Real Madrid after an excellent World Cup in 2010, or James Rodriguez doing the same in 2014.
Nowadays, earning more money is more important than the pride of representing your country.
And there’s a good reason for this: soccer players have relatively short careers, in which they must maximize their revenue. If they work hard for their clubs, they can improve their lifestyles and provide for their families.
The sad truth is that no player is able to buy a new house with international caps.
There is also increasing pressure from clubs on their players to save their energies for the organization that actually pays their wages. Just look at how Sir Alex Ferguson used every excuse in the book to keep Ryan Giggs from representing Wales over the years.
We’ve seen fantastic efforts from the likes of Wales and Iceland this summer—and teams like Italy have certainly proven to be greater than the sum of their parts. But in most cases, it seems that players are far more concerned with pleasing their employers. The folks at Back Page Football use the example of the Senegalese team at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. A team featuring names like Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cisse and Moussa Sow lost all of their games with barely a fight. They didn’t qualify for the 2010 tournament and they failed to clear the group stages in 2008.
Perhaps they were more focused on the day jobs that could change the lives of their families and friends?
It seems clear that club football has overtaken its international counterpart, but when did this happen? Well, one would imagine that it has been a gradual transition in the past two decades as the amount of money involved in the domestic game has reached astronomical levels.
Thanks to the standard of domestic play in Europe, the Champions League is now the high watermark of soccer—not the World Cup. These are teams assembled with no expense spared, featuring the very best players in the world—not just ones who happen to be born in the same country.
A possible exception to the rule of domestic teams trumping international ones is in the women’s game; particularly in the United States. The USWNT play much more frequently than the men and there is simply not the financial clout behind the domestic game for it to viably compete with the glory of playing for your country. This exception would appear to prove that it is money that has corrupted the club vs. country debate in the men’s game.
Which do you like more: club or international soccer? Let us know in the comments and let me know on Twitter!
On The Ball is Ryan Bailey’s weekly column on KICK. See the archive here.