England stars miss a friendly in Berlin as "reserves" beat Germany 2-1 with the club versus country argument raging on

The Brazilian FA were clearly not expecting huge public interest in their friendly with Portugal on November 19, given that it was held in a 20,000‑capacity stadium in Gama, a suburb of the national capital, Brasilia. But despite the low-key nature of the fixture, several of Brazil’s star players flew in from Europe for the match, as did Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s captain for the night in their 6‑2 defeat. By contrast, England’s squad to face Germany in Berlin was significantly weakened by withdrawals.

England’s 2-1 win, rounding off what the Sun declared to be an “Annus Fabulosa”, was their first non-competitive match in Germany in 21 years but it has been a long time since anything like a first‑choice XI was able to turn out for a friendly. It has become something of a tradition that each England manager falls out with his club counterparts when players are pulled out. This time, Liverpool protested about Steven Gerrard having to make a four-hour car journey to have his groin injury assessed by the England medical staff, with Rafa Benítez variously said to be “furious”, “fuming” and “bewildered” by the request. Mick Dennis in the Express felt, however, that Gerrard had no cause for complaint given that he appeared against Man Utd in September three days after England returned from World Cup qualifiers away against Andorra and Croatia which he had missed: “Why was he treated like a naughty schoolboy? Because he has previous as a truant.”

With Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand among the other withdrawals, Fabio Capello had no more than four of his preferred starters available in Berlin: “a glamour game now a glorified kickabout” sighed the Sun’s Ian McGarry. Capello duly made a show of defiance, the Mirror reporting that the “hard line Italian” had declared himself ready to axe some squad regulars: “If a player doesn’t love to play for England, then perhaps he should stay at home.” Of course, Capello has no intention of following through with this threat. Although what the Times saw as his 24-carat goal reserves played well in a 2-1 win against off-key opposition, he has already established that there is a distinctly shallow pool of talent available. Capello can’t afford to fall out with key players, whose withdrawals are in any case due to their simply obeying their clubs’ instructions. Indeed there seemed to be a tactical element to the latest batch of minor niggles. Ferdinand and Rooney missed Man Utd’s match with Stoke the previous Saturday, but Frank Lampard’s rib injury was deemed to be serious only after Gerrard’s groin gave out following a full 90 minutes at Bolton.

The obvious solution would be to scrap friendlies held at a time of year packed with important league and European club fixtures. Indeed, one might almost wonder whether the people who arrange such matches really have any idea what they’re doing. But Berlin may come to seem like a sensible venue for a fixture compared to what will be in store once the 2018 World Cup bid gets into its stride. Jimmy Bullard may yet get his international chance in that 20,000‑capacity stadium in Brasilia.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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