International Football: Please Don’t Injure My League Heroes…
Lennon’s cross arcs over the box. It hones in on Steven Gerrard who waits just outside the crowd. He jumps, coils his neck and smashes the ball toward goal. His header flies down into the net. 2-0 to England.
I’m an American, but I still get chills when Gerrard scores for his country. His header against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup was one of the moments that first drew me to English football, to the English Premier League and to Liverpool FC.
That summer I wanted to eat up as much international football as possible. I watched every match I could. And I’ll do the same in 2010. While my heart will be with the US team, I’ll take in as many of the other fixtures as my schedule allows, preferring to watch matches with at least one Liverpool player involved. The only difference between now and 2006 is the fear of injuries.
An English friend and fellow Reds supporter summed it up at the end of last season when I asked if he’d follow FIFA’s Confederations Cup. “Argh, I can’t bear to. What if Torres gets injured?” Of course, even with his own England, this friend is a staunch club-before-country kind of guy, so we can’t expect him to put Spain’s quest for glory above Fernando Torres’ hamstring or metatarsal.
I’m not Spanish, English, Dutch or Argentine, but as a Liverpool obsessive I can’t help taking joy in an international goal from Torres, Gerrard, Kuyt, Mascherano. I’ve programmed myself to go nuts when these men find the back of the net. But since Liverpool have no US internationals in the ranks, I am most certainly a club-before-other-people’s-country sort of guy. So while I instinctively relish the chance to see that extra Gerrard glory when he’s in an England shirt, I’m more concerned that he walks away from international fixtures unscathed.
My feeling toward US players doesn’t operate on these same lines. The comparison that pops immediately to mind is Jay Heaps.
Jay Heaps plays for the New England Revolution, my local club. And like Gerrard for Liverpool, he’s a local boy. Heaps was born in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was probably delivered at the same hospital as me. (Unless his folks went the midwife route at home – but let’s not delve too deeply into how Jay Heaps came into this world – important thing is he was born in Nashua…) And he went to high school in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, 80 miles from Foxboro where the Revolution play. (Note: in the States, where regional loyalty to sports teams often covers huge areas, this is considered a relatively small distance.) I’ve randomly met two people who went to high school with Heaps. They immediately brought this up upon learning I love “soccer”. Both volunteered that Heaps had always been an all-around great athelte. He went to Duke on a basketball scholorship, but in the end chased his soccer career full tilt.
I include all this information because somehow, knowing all this about Heaps makes me more thrilled to see him get called up to our national team. He’s that local boy who’s made it to the big stage. Despite wanting the injury-plagued New England Revolution to finally capture that League trophy, when Heaps gets called up, I’m not immediately worried about him staying fit. With Gerrard this is the first thought. In my head, I could almost turn into a nagging mother. Now, make sure you do your stretches… Don’t stay out too late with the boys… Get some rest afterwards…
With Heaps, the local lad, or any other New England player, though, the international call-up becomes valuable experience. Any risk of him pulling up something or twisting something or breaking something or concussing something is overshadowed by the feeling that each international outing can make him a better player. He will bring things he learned on the international stage back to the Revolution.
There’s not much Gerrard can bring back to Liverpool FC after playing with England. The flow for Premiership players goes the other way. Fabio Capello sits in the stands and tries to figure out how the top performing Premier League players can help England. Rafa Benitez isn’t sitting in his office saying, “Ooh, I’m so glad Stevie’s playing for England this week! He’s going to come back a better player!” He’d probably prefer Gerrard didn’t get the call-ups and risk injury. (Just after I wrote that Twitter informed me that Rafa is saying Gerrard can help England win the World Cup… thanks, Rafa. Way to back me up.)
Well, NE Revolution manager Steve Nicol might not be ecstatic about losing players to the US, but then again, MLS managers really lose their players as the MLS doesn’t recognize the international breaks and plays through the summers. When your MLS hero is off playing for the USA, he’s probably missing league matches.
Utimately, I was thrilled to see both Stevie’s headers against Croatia. But I was more thrilled to see him subbed off and unhurt.
I wouldn’t mind seeing England win the World Cup. The US isn’t quite ready to make that upset and England are overdue and besides: maybe Gerrard will retire from international football once he has a World Cup medal in his cabinet… If that’s the case all this worry will be worth it.