Club vs Country?

In football there is a thing called the ‘Club vs Country Debate’.  This isn’t really a debate as much as a bunch of people with different interests yelling at each other, but let’s follow it anyway.  Football clubs invest millions of dollars/pounds/euros into developing (or at least buying) players to play for them.  Once they reach the required level, they then give more millions/pound/euros in salary to those players.  Those clubs hold the belief that club football is the most important thing, the players belong to them and they should have the final say in what they do.  National federations invest millions of dollars/pounds/euros into developing players to play for their national teams.  Those federations hold the belief that international football is the most important thing, and the players owe their countries for developing them and should thus prioritise their participation.  The ‘debate’, such that it is, erupts every time the national teams play during the club season.  Clubs are upset at lost continuity and the risk of fatigue and injury to players that can disrupt their goals.  Federations are upset at the lack of preparation time that hinders the ability to achieve their goals.

Volleyball has its own version of the ‘debate’.  Like the football version it is not really a ‘debate’ per se, in volleyball’s case it is more like constant murmurings of dissatisfaction.  Players ‘owe’ the clubs who pay them and ‘owe’ the federations who developed them.  In the eyes of each party, the other goes out of it’s way to hinder the player’s ability to perform for the other.  Clubs/federations train the players with no regard for their physical health so they are unable to perform for the other.  Players are essentially blackmailed emotionally, morally or financially to withdraw from one or the other or to continue to play through injuries.   This is exacerbated by the reality that there is no actual break in the volleyball calendar.  The international season begins one week after the club season finishes, and the club season begins one week after the international season finishes.

I’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to have been on both sides of this discussion.  While with the national team I’ve worked with players who returned from their club season having played for nine months with no proper weight training or medical support and who required a period of treatment and rehabilitation before they could even train properly again.  While with clubs I’ve worked with players who returned from national teams having not done any weight training for four months or with long term injuries that they had been forced to play with, and could not perform at their normal for weeks or even months.  Even when returning from good situations (of which there are also plenty), the grind of it all does nothing to encourage high performance.

In all cases it is the player who is in the middle, essentially with no right of reply and almost certain to be criticised by at least one side for lack of loyalty/heart/professionalism.  Very occasionally a player makes his feelings known publicly.  Lorenzo Bernardi sued the Italian federation after the 1996 Olympics for it’s management of an injury situation, and for three years during the peak of his career did not play in the national team.  Most recently Polish star Mariusz Wlazly wrote an open letter to the volleyball community after being criticised in public by the federation President.  For every Bernardi and Wlazly there are dozens and dozens of other players with equally valid points on both ‘sides’, who don’t have the same avenue to reply and many who simply don’t/can’t play any more.

None of that is good for volleyball.

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6 thoughts on “Club vs Country?

  1. Hugh Nguyen

    Great post Mark. Probably not an easy topic.

    In Australia, we take it for granted that athletes are treated with a level of “duty of care” that doesn’t necessarily exist everywhere. We have athletes abroad that don’t get paid properly by their clubs, so it’s hardly surprising that aspects of welfare are glossed over too.

    I read Wlazly’s letter a week ago and found it quite disturbing. What surprises me about Wlazly’s situation is that it took a horrible public attack on his character from the federation for him to break the silence. What is positive to hear is that by his accounts, Belchatow was pretty classy about taking care of him.

    I met a guy who plays overseas who was forced to play with a bad shoulder and the closest thing his club could provide was a chiropractor! And oh wait, and he had to hire lawyers to chase up his club for outstanding payments!

    Big ask for someone to play another 10 weeks after a long season when they could be spending it with loved ones or recovering. As much as I’d like to see Paul Carroll play for Australia, i can understand why anyone in his position would want a break between seasons.

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    1. markleb Post author

      One tends to hear more ‘horror’ stories about clubs, but the Wlazly story (and my experience) shows that it works both ways. And usually it is the players who pay the highest price.
      The broader topic is of the competition calendar that doesn’t allow players a natural break to recover and regenerate. There are more and more murmurs about that starting to be percolate. I wonder whether they will be louder.

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  2. l.a. hakala

    Mark, this is a wonderful post on a difficult topic. Thanks for everything you do for the volleyball community, and say hi to Urpo, Paul, and Kawika! Greetings from Pepperdine.

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  3. frankstone

    One of the best blogs so far Mark, and clearly one I can very much relate too. The fact that there is no off-season in Volleyball weighs heavily on the the bodies of players that juggle both National and Club team duties. Honestly more than often it is too much, from my own experience i’ve played may times for my club not with anywhere near 100% fitness due to National Team duties, as well on the other side of things returning to NT with injuries (generally as a result of poor/no treatment overseas)
    Nearly all players who have played like this for a number of years need a break. You will see that a lot of NT in fact rest there players from World LEague round matches or other less important tournaments or matches. This rarely happens in Australia, probably due to a perceived lack of depth within the entire Australian squad. In my opinion there has to be a greater understanding of the needs of players with such a busy schedule.
    Otherwise you run the risk of players burning out in their mid 20’s even before they may have reached their prime.
    It’s by no means an easy issue to tackle, but the more players begin to talk about changes (which is already a lot) the more likely it is that some change is going to occur. Let’s just hope that it can work so that we can always see our favourite players playing for both their country and clubs at the same time.

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