World Soccer
Thursday March 4th, 2010

It was the ultimate expression of modern player power. In January, Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced he was "taking a break" from international football. The Barcelona forward will not play for the Swedish national team for the foreseeable future.

"I'm not motivated," he said. "I would be wasting energy for no reason, a sacrifice for nothing."

Barcelona will be his priority in 2010 while he takes time out from international football.

"There are so many games with Barcelona and so many things to think about that I barely have time to think about the national team," he added.

Few people batted an eye at the announcement. Such declarations are now commonplace. "I have no other choice," said Ruud Van Nistelrooy in August 2008 when announcing his retirement from Holland's national side. "The combination of the league, cup and Champions League games of Real Madrid, and the program of the Dutch team, is too heavy a burden."

Paul Scholes took the politician's line when he quit England after Euro 2004, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family -- and Manchester United. "I wasn't enjoying it one little bit," he admitted in a rare interview in 2008.

Dida, Brazil's first-choice goalkeeper at the 2006 World Cup, did not formally announce his international retirement after the tournament, but coach Dunga admitted the player had rung him to say that he no longer wished to be considered for the national team.

Dida's Milan teammate Alessandro Nesta was more forthright, telling a press conference in August 2006, three weeks after winning the World Cup with Italy: "My adventure in blue finishes here."

While the likes of Scholes and Nesta have retired from the national team in order to lengthen their club careers, others have quit in a fit of pique at not being selected on a regular basis.

Last year, Jamie Carragher admitted Fabio Capello had approached him about an England return, but the Liverpool defender remained unhappy at being a reserve to first-choice center backs John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

"Maybe I would have won 10 more caps over the last couple of years because Rio and John have missed a few games," conceded Carragher.

France forward David Trezeguet quit les Bleus after Euro 2008 in protest at the continued presence of national coach Raymond Domenech, who had not selected him for the finals.

"The Euros were very negative, but what annoys me more is that Domenech is staying," he said.

Frustration with the coach is a familiar theme. Argentina's Juan Román Riquelme has twice announced his international retirement: the first time after the 2006 World Cup, and then again last year in frustration at criticism from national coach Diego Maradona. "We don't share the same codes of ethics," Riquelme said. "While he is the coach of the national team, we can't work together."

Other players have been forced out by the fans. Neil Lennon, a catholic who was the subject of sectarian abuse when he captained Northern Ireland, quit international football after he received a death threat on the eve of a friendly match in 2002.

The financial circumstances of many of today's players mean that they can afford to forego the "honor" of representing their country -- and the financial benefits from sponsorship deals that often result. The aptly named Stephen Ireland, who earns a reported $100,000 a week with Manchester City, has resisted calls to return to the Republic of Ireland squad after the furor over the player's concocted tale of dead grandparents.

Whereas once players referred to representing their country as a "duty," now they look for increasingly elaborate excuses to avoid international appearances.

In 1971, Pelé became the first prominent player to stage a retirement from the national team. He played his last game for Brazil in the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, a passionate occasion when more than 180,000 fans chanted "Stay! Stay!" Pelé wept openly on the field -- ample proof that saying goodbye to the national team was a heart-rending decision.

Maybe the "spell" was broken as far back as 1978, when West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Holland's Johan Cruyff announced they would not be going to that year's World Cup, in Argentina. Beckenbauer and Cruyff had been the opposing captains in the 1974 World Cup final, both were at the peak of their careers -- but both chose to stay at home. No farewell games, no passionate crowds, no tears. Just matter-of-fact statements. Beckenbauer simply felt that he had nothing more to prove after winning in 1974, while Cruyff made cryptic references to Argentina's military junta.

Up until then, with the exception of Pelé's retirement, international walkouts had tended to be the preserve of mavericks such as Paul Breitner, the Maoist left back who quit West Germany's national team in 1975 only to return in time for the 1982 World Cup.

Yet for all the modern-day players who consider the international game beneath them, the past decade has witnessed a new phenomenon -- the international comeback.

Zinedine Zidane led the way when he returned to help rescue France's faltering World Cup qualifying bid in September 2005. Little did he know that it would all end in such ignominy less than a year later.

Luís Figo was Portugal's most-capped player when he stepped down from international duty after losing the final of Euro 2004. But barely a year later, spurred on by the thought of competing on the international stage for one last time, he returned to lead Portugal to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, its best performance.

The lure of playing in his first World Cup was enough to persuade Pavel Nedved to reverse his September 2004 decision to retire from the Czech Republic team. But after appearing in the 2006 World Cup, he rejected calls to return for Euro 2008.

Paolo Montero, who came back to captain Uruguay at the 2004 Copa America after retiring in 2002, and Dwight Yorke, who quit Trinidad and Tobago in 2001 only to return for the 2006 World Cup finals, are further examples of those who could not resist the international spotlight.

But the prize as the Frank Sinatra of international football goes to Sweden's Henrik Larsson, who made three retirements from the international arena before finally ending his career last year.

And now, with about three months until the World Cup finals kicks off in South Africa, the comebacks are starting again.

For host South Africa, Benni McCarthy looks set to return. The striker, newly signed by West Ham United, is South Africa's most-talented attacker but he has a tempestuous relationship with Bafana Bafana. However, the sacking of coach Joel Santana late last year should hasten McCarthy's reintegration into the squad.

Francesco Totti of Roma has hinted that he will be available for selection, injuries permitting, despite calling time on his Italy career in 2007, saying "my health is more important." Nesta, Totti's international teammate, is actively being courted by Marcello Lippi.

Riquelme continues to divide opinion in Argentina. The Boca Juniors playmaker is on record as saying that he expects to be spending this summer watching the World Cup on television as he remains aggrieved at Maradona's criticism of him. Yet there remains a sizable lobby in Argentina, including federation president Julio Grondona, that would welcome his presence in the squad.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy's recent move to Hamburg was accompanied by a declaration that he was too hasty in leaving the international scene, while former teammate Edwin Van der Sar continues to resist speculation that he, too, will return.

Van der Sar answered an emergency call from coach Bert Van Marwijk during Holland's World Cup qualifying campaign when regular keepers Maarten Stekelenburg and Henk Timmer were both injured. But he insists that the return was temporary and that he will not add to his record 103 caps.

Holland will be led this summer by Mark Van Bommel, who refused to play under coach Marco Van Basten at Euro 2008, but has returned to play for Van Marwijk -- who also happens to be his father-in-law.

And the return to form of the greatest player of the past decade, Ronaldinho, suggests that he could yet play a major role for Brazil in South Africa (see box above).

When faced with deciding between an experienced veteran and a younger wild card, national coaches have a history of opting for experience. "You're looking for that player who may not be in form, but who adds that extra dimension to the squad," said Roy Hodgson, the Fulham manager who was in charge of Switzerland at the 1994 World Cup.

At the last World Cup, Sven-Göran Eriksson's selection of uncapped 17-year-old Theo Walcott was a gamble that backfired for England. That experience can only harden the belief of experienced veterans like Michael Owen, David Beckham and Patrick Vieira that there will be space for them on the planes to South Africa. Owen admitted in a recent interview he still has hopes of making England's World Cup squad. "I make sure I'm in a mind-set that if I did have to pack my bags to go to South Africa I'd be right with it," he said.

With his loan move to Milan, Beckham has demonstrated, at the age of 35, that advancing years need not be a barrier to continued international ambition. Vieira's recent transfer to Manchester City was undertaken in the belief, however misguided, that he still has something to offer France.

It is not just in Europe that players are plotting their international comebacks. Robinho hopes his return to Santos will maintain his place in the Brazil side and he will be playing in the Brazilian championship alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Adriano, who all hold out hopes of being recalled by Dunga.

Their chances of playing in South Africa may be slim, but they are offered hope by the recent case of Argentina's Martín Palermo, who was recalled for last autumn's World Cup qualifiers after an absence of more than a decade.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is unlikely to be missing from Sweden's lineup for quite so long.

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