Playing for your country is the peak for most footballers but, as Steve Menary points out, it can come at a cost for lower-league players
For players in the lower leagues, pursuing an international career is a real gamble. The latest international calendar allows for 19 matches over a two-year period ending in 2012. With no automatic suspension of games in the lower divisions, players going on international duty risk losing their place at their clubs.
Kevin Betsy was often asked to play for the Seychelles, the land of his birth, during an itinerant career that took him from Premier League appearances with Fulham to clubs such as Barnsley, Oldham and Bristol City. After returning for a second spell at Wycombe in 2009, Betsy finally agreed to play for the Seychelles earlier this year in the Indian Ocean Games, which they hosted this summer. The Seychelles rarely win games, let alone tournaments – the closest they came was in the 1979 Indian Ocean Games, when a Seychelles side captained by Kevin’s dad Lewis Betsy lost 2-1 to hosts Reunion in the final. This summer, however, the Seychelles won their first title. Playing in front of his parents, Betsy scored in a 1-1 draw and then picked up the trophy after a penalty shoot-out victory.
Betsy had played regularly when Wycombe won promotion from League Two in 2010-11, but the Indian Ocean Games were staged in early August. His manager at Wycombe, the former Republic of Ireland international Gary Waddock, was sympathetic and Betsy missed the Chairboys’ first four games of the season. Since returning he has barely had a look in. “My absence from the Wycombe team since I have returned is a little peculiar,” says Betsy with characteristic understatement.
Fear of losing their place also deterred some of Grenada’s UK-based players from playing in the Caribbean island’s recent World Cup qualifiers. Despite having a population of just 100,000, Grenada qualified for the last two Concacaf Gold Cup finals. Aldershot duo Anthony Straker and Bradley Bubb featured at this summer’s tournament in the United States, which was played in the European off-season.
When the 2014 World Cup qualifiers began in September, Grenada suffered a shock 3-0 home loss to Belize. The defeat left them needing wins in their next two games against St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the return with Belize in Belmopan. Aldershot manager Dean Holdsworth was happy for his international duo to play, but when the games were scheduled nearly three weeks apart, Straker and Bubb opted for League Two fixtures over World Cup qualifiers. Straker explains: “The games were meant to be five days apart so we only missed one league game but they were moved and I chose not to go.” So did Bubb who, unlike Straker, has been used predominantly as a substitute this season.
A chance to get off the bench was what drove Leon Cort to answer an international call from Guyana. The Burnley defender is on loan at Charlton, one of a huge influx of players brought in by manager Chris Powell. Cort is struggling to get a start at The Valley so he agreed to play for Guyana, his mother’s country of birth, but not a place he or his brother Carl had visited since their teens. Dogged by injury and without a club since being released by Brentford at the start of the season, Carl also decided playing for Guyana was better than not playing at all.
“Some managers used to go crazy when players started talking about FIFA dates, particularly the African Cup of Nations,” recalls Carl of his time in the Premier League with Wimbledon and Newcastle. “But you’ve got to let players go. They will go crazy if managers don’t.” The move was a major success for the Corts. Guyana remained unbeaten until their penultimate qualifier, when Carl – finally free of injury – joined Leon in the side for the shock 2-1 win over Trinidad & Tobago that eliminated the 2006 World Cup participants.
“It makes [Charlton] realise they have a decent player and if called upon I can do a job,” says Leon. “In League One we don’t have an international break but I still wanted to go as the prospect was, and is, huge.” Carl and Leon are still struggling to get starts in England, but the next stage of World Cup qualification brings the prospect of more regular World Cup football against Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
But spare a thought for Kevin Betsy. In November, he played in the Seychelles’ World Cup pre-qualifier against Kenya, which they lost 7-0 on aggregate, ending any chance of regular football in the short term.
From WSC 299 January 2012