Club v Country: Why loyalties are divided and the difficult relationship between the two

The relationship between club and national teams in soccer is not an easy one.

Players are valuable, and expensive, assets for clubs. With the biggest names taking home hundreds of thousands per week in return for their skills, the idea of putting more minutes into their legs – with the potential for injury an ever-present threat – but without getting any reward isn’t enticing for their employers.

Yet players want to represent their countries. FC Barcelona icon Lionel Messi was famously granted permission by the club’s then-head coach, Pep Guardiola, to play at the 2008 Olympics with Argentina after the club had initially legally barred him from doing so.

The Catalan was reticent to allow the Barça icon to play at the games as it would mean missing their UEFA Champions League qualifiers but, as a gold medal winner himself in 1992, reasoned that he could gain Messi’s loyalty by allowing the forward to go.

In the end, Guardiola’s decision was vindicated. Argentina won gold in Beijing with Messi scoring the only goal of the game in the final win over Nigeria.

But it does not always end happily for both parties. Newcastle United made Michael Owen their record signing in the summer of 2005 when he joined from Real Madrid for $21.6million.

Twelve months later he was off to the FIFA World Cup in Germany with England but, 51 seconds into the Three Lions’ final group game against Sweden, Owen badly twisted his right knee. After undergoing a scan it was confirmed he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and his World Cup was over.

It was a devastating blow for Owen personally, England’s chances of success and, of course, his club. The former Liverpool forward did not return to action until April 2007, meaning he missed almost all of the 2006/07 season.

Understandably dismayed, Newcastle embarked on a lengthy legal wrangle with FIFA and the Football Association, a so-called Club v Country row, which rumbled on until April 2007 with the Magpies finally receiving up to £10million ($12.86million) in compensation, per reports at the time.

However, it’s not just relations between clubs and nations which can end up becoming frosty – or heated, for that matter – it’s a difficult concept for supporters to get their heads around too.

When soccer fans spend so much of their time, energy and money following their team and their players, the idea of becoming emotionally invested in a jamboree of players from rival teams can be quite hard to get your head around.

The England national team, for example, has long been viewed as the private domain of the Premier League’s biggest clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

This has lead to some difficult relationships between its players and supporters down the years. Most notably when a young David Beckham, then of Manchester United, was given his marching orders for foolishly kicking out at Argentine midfielder – and future Atlético de Madrid coach – Diego Simeone at the 1998 World Cup in France.

England lost on penalties to the South Americans with Beckham’s dismissal pinpointed as the game’s turning point.

Beckham’s moment of petulance made him public enemy No.1 back in the UK and the future Real Madrid and LA Galaxy superstar was vilified upon his return to the isles, including when he turned out for the Three Lions the following season.

That Beckham went on to become England captain and a fan’s favourite was quite something. Though his stunning free-kick to drag the Three Lions to the 2002 World Cup played a significant part in that turnaround.

More recently, any Tottenham Hotspur-supporting Koreans would have found themselves very conflicted as star forward Heung-min Son attempted to play his way out of undertaking national service with his nation.

Son was in the window for national service in Korea and being a top soccer star would not have been enough to exempt the 26-year-old. However, success on the international front with the Korean Republic would secure the forward a reprieve.

So what constitutes success in the eyes of the powers that be? Getting knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage in 2018 wasn’t going to do it but, luckily for Son and Spurs, winning the Asian Games was enough to get Son and his team-mates out of national service.

The drawback for Tottenham supporters was their man missed the first five games of the Premier League season. The pay-off is he won’t miss two years of action serving his country further down the line.

Not as serious as that but troubling for supporters is the idea of having to support players who would normally be considered enemies thanks to their allegiance to your arch-rivals.

From 2008 until 2012 Spain were the best international soccer team on the planet. They won the UEFA European Championships either side of lifting their first ever World Cup. Yet that success did nothing to unify supporters of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, two of the biggest contributors of players to La Roja and two of the nation’s biggest teams.

Ever-increasing tensions between the two clubs as they competed domestically did not help matters but it would have been hard for Barça fans to watch Los Blancos icon Iker Casillas get his hands on the silverware first on each occasion.

Seeing their nation crowned the best team in world soccer would have dulled the pain. But part of the identity of any soccer fan is rivalry, however that manifests itself.


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