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Pride and Loyalty

by Nick Pawson / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 07.03.2012

“Holland has certainly produced some star footballers over the years, but they don’t have the depth that England has”, said the bigoted English commentator, during last week’s international friendly between England and the Netherlands. This selfsame commentator was then spotted in the bogs eating his hat, after the Netherlands recorded a 3-2 victory. I doubt though, that the England players and fans were particularly fazed. Their hearts may lie with their country but their minds are on the money, and cups. Club leagues are knocking the status out of international fixtures, one lucrative punch at a time – and it’s happening across all codes.

In all fairness, it was a relatively young and experimental side that ran out against the 2010 World Cup finalists at Wembley Stadium last week – but it’s not the first time in recent years that one of the most hyped-up group of players has failed to produce the goods. For a country with arguably the best domestic league – with some of the biggest homegrown stars in world football – the England national team seem to struggle against other European giants. Another example of this non-transference is the Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ failing to close the deal yet again – losing the 2012 AFCON final to no-name Zambia. Getting a country’s high-profile players to sit around the same table is a task in itself. How can we expect them to fire as a well-oiled unit?

Players’ club obligations are getting far more attention than their national call to arms – and it’s nonsense. International sporting contests are the modern day version of imperial warfare. Step up, Rooney, your country needs YOU!

To see how invaluable familiarity is in creating a winning brand, just look at how the Lions brought pride back to Jozi in last year’s Currie Cup – a team with the least number of Springboks. What they did have however, was cohesion – an effective game plan that comes from playing alongside the same faces, uninterrupted, for a significant period of time.

It seems a shame then, that national coaches aren’t afforded the same amount of time with their players. In fact, they should have more. But the chase for club and provincial silverware has become greater than the national cause – most certainly in football. And rugby and cricket are going the same way. Professionalism has just taken longer to kick in.

What could be greater than saying: “I’m a South African, and the Springboks are the World Champs”? Is it saying: “I’m from Manchester, and Man United won the Champions League”? Seems like it. The ironic thing about taking a bullet for the Red Devils though, is that hardly any of their players actually hail from Manchester, let alone England. Our ‘allegiance’, these days, sees us staying loyal to a cross-pollinated mess.

South Africans who choose to watch an English Premier League match over a Bafana Bafana fixture piss me off the most – particularly those who have no realistic ties to England whatsoever. Yeah, yeah… you enjoy the quality of football. Hang on, what’s that? A Chelsea tattoo on your arm?

On the local rugby front, Springbok coaches are constantly fighting with provincial coaches to ensure they give their Bok players adequate rest throughout the Super Rugby season – which is now longer than ever. Whenever the Boks underperform in the Tri-Nations or the November Internationals, the first excuse is always “our players are fatigued… the franchise season is too long”. Well, the whine holds merit, but it’s still a whine. Does winning the Super 15 give you more of a woody than winning the Tri-Nations?

The IPL – or to quote a former colleague – the “Indian Pyrotechnic Loudness” – has become cricket’s version of the same dilemma. On the upside, cricketing talent is finally being rewarded with cashy contracts, and cricketers can play alongside high-profile players from other countries. But the glamour and monetary allure of the IPL is causing players to drop the ball. T20 cricket calls for a change in technique and temperament, and many have said it’s this preoccupation that caused India’s capitulation during their recent Test series in Australia. Test cricket is still the true dick-measuring contest, not who owns the most gold tissue boxes.

Players’ club commitments are growing exponentially to the detriment of national sport. Pride and loyalty are shifting values, changing from country to club, to sportsman and sponsor. And will it end? When their national shirts start smelling like mothballs? I bloody hope not.

*Illustration © Alastair Laird

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