By Richard Whittle
The club versus country debate has taken on new meaning with a growing number of high-profile players calling time on international football in an attempt to extend their careers.
This season, Manchester United FC midfield player Roy Keane, AC Milan stalwart Paolo Maldini and FC Bayern München playmaker Mehmet Scholl have followed in the footsteps of Alan Shearer. The Newcastle United FC striker has, after walking away from the England scene following UEFA EURO 2000™, rekindled memories of his prolific form of old, particularly this term.
Past their peak
The benefits are obvious for any player entering their 30s. Tired limbs have longer to rest and niggling injuries can recover. More time is spent at home and out of the media spotlight. In truth it may also be a realisation that they are moving past their peak and need to readjust their priorities.
Health comes first
Scholl, who has been in blistering form for Bayern this season, touched on this point when he announced his retirement ahead of last summer's FIFA World Cup. He said: "
I'm not 20 any more. I'm 32 soon and the World Cup is a strenuous tournament. I'm not taking it easy playing for Bayern. This is all about my health."
Keane's club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, warned his captain of the dangers of over-exerting his weakening hip for the Republic of Ireland cause, urging him to follow Shearer's example when new national coach Brian Kerr indicated he wanted the player back in the fold following the World Cup fall-out with Mick McCarthy.
"You only have to look at how Alan Shearer has benefited from not playing for England to see that it can help players of Roy's age," Sir Alex said. "Shearer discovered that you can't please three parts of the football equation. Maybe Roy would be better settling for two – Manchester United and himself."
Although it may seem self-servicing on the club's part to wring out a few more seasons from their ageing but still inspirational stars, a former colleague of Keane's, Denis Irwin, who also retired from the Ireland squad in an attempt to prolong his club days, believes that such decisions will become a more regular occurrence. "With the pace of the game today and all the travelling involved you can see it happening more and more," he said.
Clamour for recall
Inevitably, when a player steps out of the international spotlight but still maintains his form there is a clamour for his recall. However, Paolo Maldini, at 34 and with a record 126 caps for Italy, is wise enough to understand that such sentiments are at best fickle. He said: "
I won't change my mind about playing for Italy. Most of the people who are advising me to resume playing are the same who were saying that I was one of the main responsibilities for our defeat against Korea [in the World Cup] and that I should have retired because I was too old for the national team."
England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson has all but accepted that the 32-year-old Shearer will not come out of retirement to put his body on the line for his country’s cause. "I think it's been the end of that story for a long time," said the Swede. "Since I came to this country he has said he wants to concentrate on Newcastle and he is doing that very well."
With Eriksson's decision to field an under-26 side for 45 minutes of the recent friendly against Australia, Shearer's example may just encourage a few more veterans to spend international week at home.
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