With top stars from all over the world preparing to play for their national teams, coaches will be looking on anxiously and hoping their key men return home safely
By Jeremy Butler
You would think a hard-pressed manager might enjoy the thought of an international break.
There is the weekend without a game to worry out. The possibility of a few days off to see the family.
And for a lucky few with rich owners, the potential of taking the stragglers in his squad away for a sunshine break.
So, why is it then that top bosses are currently hunkered down at home with a sense of sickness in their stomach while their 100-cap heroes are off with their country?
Why was there the sense of Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand in Rio Ferdinand’s withdrawal from the England squad earlier this week because of his finely-honed fitness programme?
Why do clubs hate seeing their players called up to battle it out in the international stage?
It is because for 10 days they have no control over the fate of their men and history tells them this situation often ends up with them left repairing broken bones, broken relationships and broken dreams.
For them, the prestige once attached with having international players in your squad dried up when money flushed through the game in the modern era.
Once football became as much a financial venture as a sport with Corinthian values, players quickly became commodities. And handing over your crown jewels to national associations, often run like amateur organisations, brings a fear of the unknown.
Disaster lurks at every turn. From players being forced to undergo suspect injections so they can turn out when not fully fit to being asked to risk their ankles on a pitch more akin to housing cows then playing top-class football.
For all major clubs this is a worrying time. For some, the nerves are worse than others.
Manchester United’s complete first team squad are internationals – except for Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who both retired from representing their country.
Undoubtedly, the biggest concern is losing a key player to injury.
Seeing your leading scorer break down on international duty could cost a team a Champions League spot or relegation from the Premier League – and a slice of that tasty new €3.5 billion television deal due to begin next term.
Michael Owen was in the headlines this week for calling time on his career although Newcastle have few fond memories of his spell at St James’ because he spent so long out with a cruciate ligament injury he suffered in the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.
Owen only managed to pay three games the following season and although the Magpies were eventually handed nearly €12m by the Football Association, that money was already spent on buying in Obafemi Martins as the England striker’s stand-in. Hardly a like-for-like replacement.
Then there is the exposure to the media. Players’ tongues tend to loosen once they land back on home soil and contradictions to those pledges of loyalty given in club colours flow thick and fast.
No sooner had the wheels touched down in Uruguay and Luis Suarez, fresh from signing a new deal in the summer, was confessing he could leave Liverpool.
“I’m in a world-class team, an elite team like Liverpool,” he said. “And if another team comes around with more prospects of competing in international club competitions games, which is willing to have [me], they are welcome.
“We would talk to the club, we would see if I want to go, if I don’t want to go.”
It is a statement that is unlikely to go down well on the Kop and will leave Brendan Rodgers formulating new excuses for a player he needs to protect in front of the press, but would probably want to strangle in private.
Suarez is not alone though. Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku raised the suggestion he might quit Chelsea in the summer as he talked ahead of Belgium’s World Cup qualifier with Macedonia.
And during the Euros, Robin van Persie began flirting with Manchester United and their derby rivals. Much to the annoyance of his then club Arsenal.
It is not just players talking to the media that upsets their employers. Sir Alex angrily hit out at the Football Association recently for over using Wayne Rooney as a commercial tool when he meets up with England – despite hitting him hard when he oversteps the mark on the pitch for Manchester United.
He moaned: “Wayne shouldn’t have to do anything for the FA. I keep telling him he’s too trusting. I told him ‘I don’t know why you do it with the FA’.
“They’ve not helped him one bit. Every time he does anything they punish him more than anyone in the game. He should be realising that.”
Then there are the starlets heading off, pumped up with pride at the thought of fulfilling all those playground ambitions.
Happy with their lot at their club as they head out with boots slung over their shoulder, only to have their head turned during a stint with their country.
Wage comparisons and perks enjoyed at other clubs are always dinner time topics of conversation and can lead to new demands from an unsettled player on their return.
That is if they return… often players have gone missing after an international break. Emmanuel Adebayor upset Tottenham by failing to show up for training as planned after starring for Togo in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Togo may have been knocked out on February 3 but the striker did not make it back until late on February 8 – less than 24 hours before his side’s 2-1 defeat of Newcastle.
His tardiness cost him a €187,000 fine. It cost Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas the chance to train with his preferred team ahead of the match.
For smaller clubs there is also the fear of seeing their bright young things tapped up by bigger fish.
It is not unknown for managers to urge senior players to “get in a player’s ear” about how much he is wanted by “the gaffer”.
The practice is subtle and untraceable. One of football’s dark arts that rival managers and owners are only too aware of – and probably practice as well.
So, it is easy to see why managers spend their international break armed with a stiff drink and crossed fingers.
The break from the hectic regime of domestic football is fraught with danger.
For them there is no upside to having a squad packed with players jetting off to the four corners of the globe on a regular basis.
They do not get points if their striker scores a winner or move up the league if their goalie keeps a clean sheet.
All they can expect is problems. That is why, this week there are bosses around the world, who simply cannot wait for next few days to end.