Stepping Up.

Rickie Lambert, you may have gathered, crowned his fairytale England debut within seconds, scoring past international football hall-of-famers Grant Hanley and Russell Martin in a 3-2 win against Scotland. He now has to prove that his meteoric rise to international level is no fluke, as he makes his first start this evening in the World Cup qualifier against many people's dark horses for glory next year, Moldova.

Just what is international level? Let's look at the evidence. We know that it's where John Terry's lack of pace gets cruelly exposed, that there are no easy games to be found, and that a one-in-two goalscoring record is not to be sniffed at.

"But can he make that step up to international level?" starts out as a stale brain-fart from an ITV studio pundit. Then it gets absorbed by the Carling-soaked brains in pubs. Then those Carling-soaked brains repeat it within earshot of their impressionable offspring. Before you know it, this country will be overrun by people in a paranoid frenzy about whether a top-flight 15-goal-a-season man can unlock a well-drilled Gibraltar rearguard to keep alive England's hopes of qualifying for the 2038 World Cup - controversially due to be held on the dwindling ice-shelf of Antarctica - and thus ease the pressure on under-fire manager Theo Walcott.

In terms of the concentration of talent, the almost total marginalisation of minnows, and sheer excitement, it must be put forward that the Champions League represents the true pinnacle of the game, even if the World Cup reassuringly remains a grander spectacle. But the concept of an international level implies that there are other factors to consider. The lessened threat of weak opposition, hamstrung by nations' populations, is tempered by a relative lack of team unity, cohesive tactics and preparation time, compared to the day-to-day environment of club football. Throw in a generally-declared indifference to international football (and friendlies in particular), and suddenly the "step up" becomes rather complex after all.

Making this mythical ascension to the national team perhaps applies most to strikers, for whom the proof is always in the goal-flavoured pudding. So, let's just see how challenging it has been for some of world football's greatest onion-bag-bulgers to take their form into the global arena. I looked at the exploits of the ten leading international goalscorers of the last 20 years, and compared those records with their domestic plundering.

Ali Daei - 103% better at international level
The Iranian legend, despite some creative accounting of his club career on his Wikipedia page, somehow managed to be twice as prolific for his national team than he ever was for Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin or Arminia Bielefeld, among many others. His statistics are perhaps boosted by his five-goal haul against Sri Lanka and four goals apiece in qualifying games against Laos, Nepal and a 19 (NINETEEN)-nil nail-biter against Guam on route to World Cup 2006.

Stern John - 74% better at international level
CONCACAF's all-time leading goalscorer, the Trinidadian's goalscoring prowess was first noticed in 1997 during his spell at the club with the greatest name of in the history of football, the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers. Fifteen years and 70 goals later, including 20 goals in 49 World Cup qualifiers, John was reportedly plying his domestic trade at Conference North outfit Solihull Moors.

Miroslav Klose - 33% better at international level
A well-documented phenomenon at international level. Klose has regularly filled his boots in competitive games for Germany, with his record at the European Championships (3 in 13) the only blot in his goalscoring scrapbook. Only in his three seasons at Werder Bremen did his domestic ratio get anywhere near his hit-rate for his country.

Ronaldo - 6% worse at international level
The only out-and-out striker in this pitifully flawed sample size to have enjoyed greater domestic success in front of goal, even managing to maintain a one-in-two record for Corinthians during the final, mid-1970s-Elvis-Presley chapter of his career. His 15 goals in 19 World Cup games, though, suggest that even Ronaldo's make-do-and-mend knees could handle the step up to international level with considerable ease.

Didier Drogba - 45% better at international level
When not fulfilling his day-job as a pouting, civil-war-ending talisman, Drogba has amassed a fearsome international goal haul, over 11% of which was at the expense of mighty Benin. He averages exactly a goal a game in qualifying campaigns, but his club career is perhaps hindered by his relative slow start at Le Mans in his early twenties.

Robbie Keane - 18% better at international level
An international expert at only beating what's put in front of him, with 42 goals in 69 qualifying games, Keane perhaps enjoyed the relative consistency of international duty, given his peripatetic club career.

Gabriel Batistuta - 24% better at international level
A hugely impressive barometer of international goalscoring, taking in three World Cups (plus the marathon gauntlet of the CONMEBOL qualifying format) and three Copas America. Despite averaging well over a goal every other game against miserly Serie A defences (I know, I know...), Batigol still managed to find an extra gear - or at least a quarter of one - for his country. 

David Villa - 24% better at international level
Villa matches Batistuta's goalscoring acceleration between club and international football, proving 24% more prolific in the national team's shirt. Given that his goal haul coincides with Spain's indisputable golden era, with greater knockout-round pressures, it seems Villa has had little trouble knowing where the goal is outside of La Liga.

Landon Donovan - 8% worse at international level
The first thing to note about Landon Donovan is the preposterous number of caps for his tender(ish) age. The odd one out among the pure centre-forwards in this list, Donovan's stepping-up to international level perhaps shouldn't be judged solely on his finishing ability, but his goal record at club level does look rather MLS-enhanced.

Romario - 14% better at international level
Toe-poking his way to a heavily disputed career goals tally of over 1,000, Romario benefited from Brazil's 1990s Harlem Globetrotting - 17 of his goals came in friendlies. His early-career tenure at PSV Eindhoven remained as his longest club spell, which seems rather odd. In any case, his stepping up to international level is beyond all doubt.

An obsession with goalscoring is understandable - no amount of pass-completion stats will change that - but it seems that the graduation to the national team is easier for strikers after all. It's much harder (and even more boring) to attempt to quantify what international level entails for defenders and goalkeepers, but it seems logical that they would be most exposed by the relative openness of these games compared to the more rigid, well-trained systems of club football. 

Rickie Lambert may or may not score against Moldova tonight, but the significance either way is nowhere near as much as we'll be led to believe in tomorrow's media post-mortem. 

It's not so much a step up to international level - more of a barn door.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tahiti spelt in the image. Subtle. Nice.