England absentees highlight club v country conflict

(tweaks headline)

By Martyn Herman

LONDON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - There are few more evocative fixtures in world football than Germany against England yet the build-up to Wednesday's friendly in Berlin has been rendered almost meaningless by a high-profile list of absentees.

England are without virtually their entire first 11 for the clash in the Olympic Stadium, meaning the build-up has been overshadowed by the rumbling club versus country debate.

Only four players from England's established "big four" teams will be on international duty on Wednesday after injuries and niggles left manager Fabio Capello with no alternative but to experiment with his squad players.

His hopes of at least starting with a near full-strength side have been wrecked by the unavailability through injury of Manchester United duo Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand as well as Chelsea's Ashley Cole and Joe Cole.

While they did not play for their clubs at the weekend, the news that Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Chelsea's Frank Lampard, England's first-choice midfielders, are out with minor knocks picked up on Saturday gave more ammunition to the critics who suggest top English players, and particularly their club managers, regard international friendlies as an unwanted distraction.

Gerrard was summoned with his sicknote to England's training base so his injury could be assessed by Capello's medical staff, this despite Liverpool having already said he was out for seven to 10 days with a muscle injury.

An FA spokesman said on Monday that Gerrard and Lampard were "gutted" at not being available but their respective club managers will not be losing any sleep, especially if they are back on the pitch, as expected, next weekend.

There has long been resistance by some English club managers to African players jetting off mid-season to play for their countries. The Gerrard incident now suggests a distrust of some club manager's intentions by the Football Association.


It also shows that Capello will take a tougher stance than his predecessors Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren when it comes to dealing with the likes of Liverpool's Rafael Benitez, Manchester United's Alex Fergsuon and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger.

Capello knows how much a call-up for Italy means to players in Serie A and he will expect the same passion among England's players, whatever the pressures from their club.

Serie A club managers are careful not to say anything against the Azzurri for fear of not looking patriotic.

However, they have criticised other national coaches for taking players away, most recently when Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho had a public spat with France's doctors over their treatment of Patrick Vieira.

While in charge of Chelsea, Mourinho famously said his midfielder Claude Makelele was being treated like a slave by France manager Raymond Domenech.

In Germany, there has never been any suspicion of top players being made unavailable for friendly internationals, although there have been clashes over foreign players such as Diego, who defied orders from Werder Bremen to join up with Brazil's Olympic squad in Beijing.

The club versus country dilemma has become more intense in England since the Premier League came into existence in 1992.

With hundreds of millions of pounds pumped into the Premier League's club since then, transfer budgets have bulged and even the clubs struggling near the bottom now boast squads full of internationals from around the world.

Managers are paid big bucks to satisfy the new breed of billionaire club owners with silverware. No wonder they wince every time an international week comes around.

There have been plenty of examples of club managers taking a dim view of their players representing their countries.

In 2004 Freddie Kanoute, then at Tottenham Hotspur, had his commitment questioned by then manager David Pleat because he wanted to represent Mali at the African Nations Cup.

More recently, Everton became embroiled in a row with the South African FA and FIFA after being ordered to release midfielder Steven Pienaar for international duty at the African Nations instead of playing in a League Cup semi-final.

While, Capello is unlikely to find himself in a similar situation, his no-nonsense approach could lead to further tension between himself and club managers. (Editing by Justin Palmer)