Thursday, 15 July 2010

International Retirement: Virtue or Vanity?

And so, less than a month after England's ignominious exit from the World Cup, the queue for Fabio Capello's next squad to face Hungary on 8th August just got smaller.

Much-maligned Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey has announced that he no longer wished to be considered for England selection. He will no doubt soon be joined by other underperformers from Capello's World Cup 23 - Jamie Carragher looks likely to retire for the second time, and it's easy to understand that the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard might not want to face the wrath of the Wembley crowd, both against the Hungarians and beyond.

Retirement is one of sport's great virtuous gestures. Germany goalkeeper Oliver Khan was fortunate enough to be able to retire in emotionally-charged circumstances, having helped his side to third place at their home World Cup in 2006. Those such as Carles Puyol in 2010 or Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps in 2000, who retire after international triumph, likewise do so with public blessing. More unhappily, speaking personally, Dean Ashton's retirement at 26 was a genuinely upsetting moment.

Then there are the pragmatists - most notably Paul Scholes - who prematurely retire from international football, it is said, to help lengthen their club careers. Whether we believe this reason or not, there is at least a certain dignity to that decision, flying, as it did, in the face of overwhelming public calls for him to stay.

But back to Heskey. First, his decision renders void the dull debate over his role in the England team. As it happens, though, I've always considered Heskey to have worked hard, and often effectively, under immense pressure from the media and a large number of vocal detractors among England's supporters. 

But - and this is far more important - it gives Heskey the chance to end his international career on his own terms. At 32 years of age Heskey is no spring chicken, but there's no reason to rule him out of the campaign to qualify for Euro 2012 on the grounds of age. Instead, he has stepped down from the international scene before being given the opportunity - or perhaps more accurately, being denied it.

If you are an angry England fan, stop and think: is this a serious bone of contention?

To be dropped is the one and only punishment available to international managers. At club level a player can be fined, transfer-listed, sold or sent to train with the youth team. At international level the public announcement of a squad, and the revelation of those who have been dropped from it, is the one statement of disapproval available. 

Hence, in jumping before he was pushed, Heskey has hidden the stick to beat him with.

You might think this is an unfair way of depicting Heskey's actions. That may well be because you're sympathetic to Heskey. So substitute the name Heskey for Anelka. Or maybe for John Terry. It sticks in the throat doesn't it?

In examples such as these there is no heroism, no self-sacrifice about premature retirement. It is a self-serving gesture, an attempt to forestall attempts to come to terms with failure at international level. And it allows the player in question to avoid facing up to their own failures, and to avoid the feelings of rejection associated with being publicly dropped by their international manager.

As much as one can understand Heskey's decision, it gives him an easy route out of the debacle of England's South Africa campaign. And after the disappointment of this summer, it is of no solace to England fans that the players responsible could similarly avoid judgement. Heskey may be the first, but it would be a surprise if he were the last.


Anonymous said...

For years now Heskey has been blamed for Englands poor performances, despite being involved in pretty much every big important victory that the team has played in the last decade. He's been dropped before as he didn't play for England from 2004-2007 and I don't blame him for retiring now.

Considering he's never really been appreciated for his efforts for England, I'm more than happy for this one ego-less and shy player to avoid further public humiliation.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James