As a neutral, the age-old ‘club versus country’ debate is something that inevitably goes over my head. I do not understand why people support teams at all, let alone how they find themselves having to pick between two. However, I am interested in people’s reasons for choosing their loyalties and particularly so in the explanations for a contradiction that comes up time and time again.
Without having undertaken a study to back the following statement up, I would say that most English fans prioritise the fortunes of their chosen club side over those of the national team. Valid reasons for this viewpoint vary from simple local pride to anti-nationalist principle, but the most common justification seems to be related to partisanship.
It is obvious, really: fans do not want to cheer on players from rival clubs. Few Manchester United fans, for example, can imagine themselves actively wishing Steven Gerrard sporting success. The England team may have a committed fanbase and regularly sell out ticket allocations both at Wembley and on its travels, but it is by and large a ‘second team’.
Furthermore, it is almost unique in that the level of resentment harboured towards it far exceeds the adulation it receives. It appears that once players remove their club shirts and replace them with a more neutral and theoretically uniting jersey, the absurdity and avarice of the sport hits home. Suddenly, no-one has the desire to cheer on what is essentially a self-interested group of uncaring, disconnected millionaires. Any mistake or off-field error is magnified and vilified.
It is obviously different at club level. As Wayne Rooney and Olivier Giroud have recently shown, it does not matter what footballers do off the pitch, their team’s supporters will always forgive them as long as they give everything for the shirt.
With the battle-lines so clearly drawn and with most fans firmly prioritising club over country, what I do not understand is why people want players from their clubs to be included in the England national team.
An example: a friend of mine is a die-hard West Ham supporter and a lapsed England fan. For one or more of the aforementioned reasons, he has stopped caring about the latter and devotes his energies to the club his family has traditionally supported for years. That makes sense. What confuses me is that he wants James Tomkins to be called up to the England team.
To my mind, this goes against the instincts of any club-only fan. Not only will Tomkins have to play more games, thus hindering his performances for West Ham, there is also the fact that the second he is named in the squad his agent will begin to agitate for improved wages – international recognition still carrying disproportionate prestige – or look to move Tomkins on to a club that can provide them. There is nothing in it at all for my friend’s club.
This is hardly an isolated example: the Hammers have previous with Rob Green and Mark Noble, Norwich City fans wanted Grant Holt to go to Euro 2012 and even Celtic supporters were angry that Chris Sutton and Alan Thompson repeatedly escaped call-ups over a decade ago.
Of course, we are used to players moving to increase their chances of playing international football and making more money. That is nothing new, nor is it incomprehensible. But fans wanting their club’s best players to play unnecessary fixtures in which they will either tire themselves, get injured or attract the attention of bigger, wealthier clubs? That is just crazy.