England fans reportedly booed Bayern Munich’s Owen Hargreaves as he entered the friendly against Hungary this week. With the inclusion of the very young and untested Theo Walcott, criticism of the Hargreaves selection has taken a back seat but has been quite widespread. This BBC Sport article discusses it. Former England manager Graham Taylor chimed in. Fox Sports’ Bobby McMahon derided the choice and now England fans boo. What gives? Former England and Budesliga star Tony Woodcock defended Hargreaves saying,
You don’t play for Bayern Munich – and they’ve got a star-studded line-up – in one of the leading teams, let alone clubs, in Europe with having any sort of qualities … To be playing in the same midfield as Michael Ballack says a hell of a lot and I’m sure Owen has outshone him a few times this season.
As widely noted, Hargreaves is very versatile — one Sven Eriksson’s stated reasons for choosing him. Ironically, it may hurt his performances since he usually plays the role of utility man.
The question that crops up for me is why such a strong “in-country” bias exists. If Hargreaves played in England for Tottenham, let’s say, I doubt any criticism would arise. As Woodcock notes, getting regular playing time and playing well at Bayern is no small credential — a fact that would seemingly be widely understood by every English soccer fan. The negative press and fan response seems linked to his lack of in-England pedigree. He’s Canadian but eligible to play for England by virtue of his father’s birth. He has played his entire career in Munich. Beckham and Owen have been out-of-country but were well-established legends by the time of their foreign excursions.
As an extension of the same sort of question, why do some countries (coaches or fans) appear to have a strong “in-country” bias in the selection of players? Italy, for instance, is well known for selecting only players playing in Italy — a fact that keeps most players with at home. Brazilian players, by contrast, range all over the world. I would be interested in views of other bloggers or readers.
As for the U.S. squad, even with several injuries, the back line appears stronger than in 2002, the goalkeeping will be solid, and there is more depth in the midfield. McBride, Beasley, and Donovan are all back. Nonetheless, the biggest weakness in the U.S. attack in 2002 has only expanded — a guy who can run at the defense with the ball and finish from the top of the box. In 2001, Clint Mathis was this guy, but his injury limited his contributions in South Korea. Still, he pumped in a critical goal of the very sort that I just mentioned to help gain the tie against South Korea. With his demise, no one has stepped up and Arena did not elevate a younger player who might offer an important 20 minutes to play this role.
My final question is this — why in the world is Landon Donovan taking any set pieces? There are players more skilled at the U17 level much less on the World Cup squad. One of Soccernet’s writers recently asked the same question. A few weeks back, I put the question to a different Soccernet writer who expected Donovan’s tenure on set pieces to end as more players came into the squad, but they have not. Is Nike paying Arena on the side? Donovan is good for one decent (not great, just decent) delivery out of three, one mediocre, and one worm-burning, chili-dipper. I’m embarrased for him and U.S. soccer half of the time. What’s going on?