Rio Chooses United Over England


By Matthew Jones

SO Rio Ferdinand has become the latest Manchester United player to put his club before his country – and get lambasted for it.

Whether you agree or not with his decision to snub England manager Roy Hodgson’s olive branch back into the England set-up after he left him out of his Euro 2012 squad, it is clear that Ferdinand, who I believe desperately still wants to play for England again, has chosen to put his future at Old Trafford ahead of his future with the national side.

Hodgson had seemingly ended Ferdinand’s international career by opting to select John Terry instead for last summer’s European Championships, a decision, apparently, taken purely because of ‘footballing reasons’, despite the fact that a barrier has existed between the Chelsea captain and Ferdinand over the former’s conviction for racially abusing Rio’s brother Anton in a Premier League game between his then club Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea at Loftus Road in October 2011.

As a United fan it’s difficult to put forward a balanced view because I want Rio playing for United, especially right now. He’s been back to his best this season and has been a true rock at the back for us, with injuries stunting Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans’ form as well as the career trajectories of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.

While some may view United as already having one hand clasped round the Premier League title, after last season you know funny things happen in football and I want Ferdinand in full health for the title run-in.

Ferdinand too will have been happy with his form and recuperation from long a standing back problem and is probably thinking that he needs to keep an eye on his place in the United side, with the likes of Evans, Smalling and Jones eying his spot.

One of the major talking points in articles written in the fallout of Ferdinand’s decision has been the emphasis on the strict fitness regime he is now on at Old Trafford, which is aimed at prolonging his career and managing a pesky back problem that has dogged him for years and brought on several other niggling injuries.

The central defender cited his determination not to compromise the carefully detailed conditioning programme that has allowed him to become a regular starter for United again.

Ferdinand has featured in 22 of United’s 29 league matches, starting 21, and is again first choice, displaying form which ultimately won him an England recall.

It is understood that Ferdinand needs regular injections from specialists in Milton Keynes — and occasionally Munich — to keep his back problem under control.

United medics were said to be concerned that Ferdinand’s need for subsequent rest could not be guaranteed if he was away with England.

Under the guidance of club doctor Steve McNally, fitness coach Tony Strudwick and specialists, Ferdinand has totally changed the way he trains and protects his body in recent years.

It has also been widely reported that Ferdinand has taken up yoga too, like Ryan Giggs, which has hugely benefitted him.

In a Daily Mail report, Ian Ladyman and Neil Ashton questioned why England’s medical team didn’t ask about Ferdinand’s fitness when they visited United’s Carrington training base recently to ask about the physical condition of regular squad members.

“Had they done so they might have learned of the course of injections and their precise scheduling that caused him to withdraw,” they said.

They claim that an international comeback now seems all but impossible for Ferdinand.

The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson claims a statement made by Ferdinand last month that ‘I would pack my bag and go’ if he was offered a route back into the England set-up has come back to haunt him.

“He was caught between a fierce desire to play again for England and the need to appease Ferguson by adhering to the regime that has allowed him to overcome a chronic back problem in starting 20 of United’s 29 league games this term.

“Ferguson will doubtless have referred to Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who still play in their late 30s due to the curtailing of international duties, and Ferdinand, with a contract up for renewal this summer, had to make one of the most important – and awkward – decisions of his career.

There can be no doubting that Sir Alex Ferguson has had a say, or at least an influence, on Ferdinand’s decision.

With his rumoured £130,000 a week contract set to expire in the summer, he must be thinking he does not want to rock the boat in terms of his relationship with Ferguson if he has plans on extending his stay at Old Trafford.

Mark Ogden, in The Telegraph, claims pragmatism, rather than patriotism, led to the United defender taking the decision which could potentially prolong his club career for another one, two or even three years.

“Although the United manager insisted that the final decision on whether to return to the international scene would be Ferdinand’s, he laid out the reasons why it was a bad idea before kicking the ball into the player’s court. When a manager cites medical advice as central to his misgivings over a player’s ability to represent his country, there is clearly only going to be one outcome if that player values his long-term future at the club.”

As a United and Wales fan, it’s doubly difficult for me to put forward a balanced view on where Ferdinand now stands with England and Hodgson because I simply don’t care.

If Ferdinand’s withdrawal means England are weakened, I’m happy about that.

Now, I’m not here to stir up racial hatred between two home nations, but I think the example of Giggs is appropriate here. Giggs retired from the Welsh national team in 2007 in order to prolong his own United career – a trait copied and indeed even invented by United players before and since.

Giggs has courted mixed feelings from Welsh fans throughout his international career. Many critics feel he should have added far more to the 64 caps he has for the Dragons to his achievements, while he was constantly criticised for pulling out of Wales games, with further claims that he did this because Ferguson either asked or ordered him to do so.

In defense of Giggs, when he did miss games for Wales, it was almost exclusively meaningless friendlies, which, as a football fan, I detest. In his career with Wales, I can find only one friendly he played in, a 1-0 loss to Germany in 2002. He almost always made himself available for European Championship and World Cup qualifying games. To put this in context, Craig Bellamy, a fiercely patriotic Welshman, has only seven more caps for Wales than Giggs, while Giggs retired from international football at the same age as Bellamy is now, 33.

Numerous United players have similarly called time on their international careers to either concentrate on their club football or because they became disillusioned with their role at international level, although in Michael Carrick’s case, he has since performed a U-turn.

Ji-Sung Park retired from national duty in January 2011 to give younger stars a chance; Paul Scholes turned his back on England as long ago as August 2004 after repeatedly being played out of position on the left of midfield; while Nemanja Vidic snubbed the Serbian national team in October 2011 after criticism from fans.

As far as England fans are concerned, there is an ever-increasing realisation that the more hardcore national team supporters reside in the south of the country, while in the two big northern football cities Manchester and Liverpool, their allegiance has always been more to the area they’re from as opposed to England as a whole.

Ferdinand, a Londoner, has never concealed his passion about playing for England and this has annoyed Ferguson in the past.

John Dillon in The Daily Express described Ferdinand’s decision as ‘another Sir Alex Ferguson victory for the Republic of Mancunia, which, when push comes to shove, is a place, or at least an idea, that is bigger than England’.

“Nobody should be surprised that Sir Alex Ferguson belligerently put his club’s interests ahead of England’s. He always does. When push came to shove, Ferdinand did things the Old Trafford way too.”

As sad as it may be to hear, Ferdinand has probably made his decision largely on the chances of success and silverware in the twilight years of his career. There are arguably going to be more chances and realistic ones at that of winning trophies with United than England so Ferdinand has certainly made a very difficult position. Ultimately, I think he’s simply chosen one love over the other.

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