One of the most frequently posed questions is why professional footballers often fail to perform in the big games on the international stage – I won’t mention any but I am sure that some names will spring to mind.
At the end of the day, all supporters of the beautiful game wish to see is an entertaining and winning performance from the top stars, whether it be for club or country. Often we struggle to comprehend how the professional players, earning the masses of money that they do, cannot replicate their successful club form for their country. After all, it is the same game – it’s still 90 minutes of trying to kick a ball into the goal – so why does it appear so different and difficult? To find the answer, I believe we have to break down the debate, analyse the factors that change between club and country and assess how these could affect the on-pitch performance of the players.
So which factors change? Firstly, let’s look at the manager. I know it is not always the case but, in general, it is expected that the players will have a better relationship with their club manager. Their daily interaction and communication should have developed into a mutual understanding of expectations which will in turn develop into a level of trust, confidence and loyalty between the two. Having that support and familiarity with a manager can do wonders for a player; it will be much easier for them to perform when they have a clear understanding of their role, what is expected of them and how they fit into the team. This sense of security is likely to rocket the footballer’s confidence and allow them to play with freedom and let their game do the talking. In contrast a player has a categorically different relationship with their international manager, who they only see for a week or so here and there. Consequently, the player may struggle to understand their role in the team and there may be some confusion about what the manager expects of them. Therefore, opposing the previously stated situation, any sign of uncertainty or instability can decrease the player’s confidence and performance level through being nervous and hesitant.
Another difference is teammates; as football is a team game the relationship amongst the group is imperative. A good on-field relationship has a better chance of developing when the team members are together day in and day out. The more the players train with each other the better their mutual understanding will be, and if a team knows everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences and habits then they are more likely to perform consistently at a higher level. From this it can be derived that club teammates should have a stronger connection and bond that will more effectively transfer to the pitch compared to the relationships within international teams who are only together at certain points of the year.
Pressure is the third influential difference between club and country. Pressure is still an aspect of club football but as the players experience it every week then they become acclimatised and figure out how it can be effectively managed. However playing for your country is something that, as most professionals will state, you never get used to. Every game has a different feel and importance, one may be a friendly, another a qualifier and another the World Cup final. Also, the patriotic aspect prevails; the honour and pride of playing for your country can increase nerves and the players may even put additional pressure on themselves because of this. However, it is the reaction to this pressure which is key. Some players appear to deal with it whilst others appear unable to cope with the extra pressure of international football, as they fail to execute the top-level performances when the stage is set.
To conclude, I am not giving the players an excuse for underperforming for their country but simply delving into the psychological reasons why they don’t reach their full potential or meet the expectations. As professional footballers the players are performers, they are required to put on a weekly show in front of large crowds – which does require self-assurance. But when that situation is slightly changed, from club to country, the small differences in manager, teammates and pressure can build up and substantially impact upon the player’s confidence, in turn causing that unwanted performance decline.