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Putting on the Shirt

The French team is heading home, ending the soap opera (As the Stomach Turns). Thankfully, they were in group A, and finished early, so we don’t have to listen to one embarrassing story after another. Au revoir, mes amis.

I don’t know whether England will make it through or not. They should, but need to play much better than they have. There has been an abundance of analysis for the surprising lackluster play of the big European clubs—some interesting, mostly not, all rather speculative.

I’m interested in the idea of playing ‘better’ because of the shirt you put on. Many a pundit has posited the theory that Lampard or Gerard play great for their club teams, but when they put on the England shirt they magically transform into pumpkins. Same was said about the French (the entire team), about Rooney. The reverse, that someone, Podolsky in particular, is a better player for his country than his club is also bandied about.

Patriotism is called into question, or lauded in Podolsky’s case, as if merely putting on a country’s shirt means you have to give your all.

Let me suggest a different tack. A player should be disparaged if he gives less than his all, if he doesn’t give 100%, no matter what shirt he’s wearing. Whether it’s your national team, your club, or little league. Yes, there are friendly matches, recreational ones, and so on, but sport in its essence is about giving your best. Seems very clear to me.

To suggest that Gerard doesn’t care as much when playing for England is beyond unreasonable. I’ve watched him play since he began his career. What makes him a great player, what separates him from other good players is not just his skill—he has that in abundance—but his heart. He leaves it on the field after every game. I say this and I am not a Liverpool fan. Rooney probably more so, if that’s possible. He is the epitome of the never-say-die. Again, I say this even though I dislike Manchester United.

I can’t speak for Lampard. Since I despise Chelsea—what sane person wouldn’t—I can’t see myself giving him any credit. OK, I’ll admit that he doesn’t shirk, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

Before this World Cup, there was a lot of talk about Messi not playing as well for Argentina as he did for Barca. Definitely true. Some suggested that he didn’t wish to play for his country, or that he didn’t enjoy it. The question was asked: Could he be considered one of the all-time greats if he doesn’t bring it when he puts on the Argentine colors? How silly is that? How insulting. Right now, he is proving he’s the best player in the world no matter what shirt he’s wearing. It was never an issue of effort. And it certainly isn’t one with Rooney, Gerard, or the English one with gelled hair.

The reasons why a player is better on one club than on another are many. I certainly am not an expert and can’t explain. Does Gerard play better for Liverpool than he does for England? Oh yes, he does. He might be uncertain about his position, unable to understand the system. He might do better when he is the star of a team as opposed to one of many. It could be the pressure. He might not gel with gel guy. I can’t say. But I can say that he’s giving everything he has. Questioning his desire seems so unfair. Questioning Rooney’s is just plain bonkers.

This is not a matter of insipid patriotism. It concerns something much more important: character. I suggest that you can put Rooney, Gerard, Messi, or De Rossi in any color shirt you wish, on any team, and they will scratch and claw and do whatever they can. They may play well or not, but they will compete, every time.

Did the French team give it their all? I didn’t see it. It was shameful to watch. The talk is that they embarrassed France. Pardon my French, but I say, Fuck that. They embarrassed everybody, not just France. When you don’t give it your all, you insult everyone who has ever worn a soccer shirt.