Shades of Grey and the Battle between Club & Country

by Paddy Higgs on Jul 25, 2011

3 comments | | print

In 1996, Joe Spiteri was in his first season at Austrian club Sturm Graz when he received a phone call from then-Socceroos manager Eddie Thomson.

Thomson wanted to know why Spiteri had declined an invitation to join the national team.

It was news to Spiteri. His club had, in fact, decided not to alert the striker of the call-up and declined it on his behalf.

Former Melbourne Knight Spiteri responded immediately by jumping on a plane to link up with Thomson’s squad.

It was a prime example of the regard Australia was then held in by European clubs as a football nation.

Times have changed now, helped by FIFA-designated dates, the Socceroos’ improved reputation and move to Asia.

But dormant for so long, the club-versus-country debate has again raised its head.
It began upon the naming of the Young Socceroos squad for the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia.

The tournament - beginning for Australia next Sunday against Ecuador - does not fall on FIFA-designated dates.

Delayed by several days as the FFA sought the co-operation of clubs, Jan Versleijen’s Young Socceroos’ squad announced on July 13 was not to include striker Brent McGrath or midfielder Steven Lustica.

Both 20-year-olds had declined an invitation to be part of the tournament, with Lustica having just joined Hajduk Split in Croatia and McGrath on the fringes of the starting XI of Danish club Brondby.

The FFA took a dim view of the snubs, with FFA technical director Han Berger hinting that there would be much ground to make up before either would be considered for national team selection in the future.

“I think Holger [Osieck] already gave a clear indication by not selecting Brent for the Serbia and New Zealand game (which was) partly to do with this issue,” Berger said, despite acknowledging it was ‘difficult’ for a young player to ignore the pressure of their clubs.

“What will happen for the future, I think we will have to discuss that internally and also with Brent and also with Steve Lustica.”

The FFA were applauded for taking a hard line on the duo, while the knee-jerk reaction from forums and social media was largely critical of the duo’s decision.

There was always more to the story than meets the eye, however.

Reportedly, McGrath’s club Brondby proved impossible with which to correspond, while it is fair to assume Hadjuk would not have wanted Lustica to be missing.

Then came the withdrawal of Matthew Leckie, putting the issue in a far more objective light.

The response from Berger and the FFA after Leckie’s withdrawal laid the blame squarely at the feet of Borussia Mönchengladbach, abdicating all responsibility from the player: “This week, we received further correspondence from Borussia Mönchengladbach advising that they would now no longer be releasing Mathew for the tournament,” Berger said.

“After receiving this information, we made further attempts to ask the club to reconsider their position, but to no avail.

“We believe that this change in attitude by Borussia Mönchengladbach is not in the spirit of Fair Play and we will voice our dissatisfaction with FIFA accordingly.”

The response could not be more different. And while decision to withdraw Leckie from the squad seems more to do with the club than player, it is folly to assume the same pressures were not placed on McGrath and Lustica by their respective clubs.
Only a player truly understands the club-versus-country tug-of-war.

Representing one’s country must be among the greatest honours as a footballer, but risking your club future and potentially your livelihood is no easy decision.

Both McGrath and Lustica need to show their commitment to the national team set-up, and soon.

But the honour of national representation against the responsibility to club has never been black and white, and the issue surrounding Leckie, McGrath and Lustica could not be greyer.