Club v country takes new twist
The big kick-off to a new season is always exhilarating, fuelled by the energy of fans flocking back to their spiritual home after more than three months of absence.
The regularity and depth of this contact between fans, stadium and team means that the club game will always be football's central experience.
But maybe a tilt is taking place in the direction of national teams. It could just be that this is World Cup season. Or perhaps because I'm briefly back in England at a moment when there is a mini buzz of expectation around Fabio Capello and his men.
But it might be something deeper.
"Increasingly," wrote Brian Viner in Thursday's 'Independent', "international football is a refreshing antidote to the game in Europe's top leagues, its teams determined by accidents of birth rather than the flourishing of a chequebook."
His complaint is aimed at an inevitable consequence of the dynamic of the times. Globalisation leads to concentration. Fewer, bigger banks, and fewer, bigger football clubs competing for the major honours and hoovering up the best players from all over the planet.
What makes international football so interesting in this context is that it is where the opposite dynamic is taking place.
If the logic of money means that fewer clubs are in contention to win the domestic title or the Champions League, a by-product of the same process is that more countries can realistically dream of doing well in the World Cup.
Take the then-Zaire team, who played in West Germany in 1974. Some of the technique of their play was not bad. But they looked as if they had never defended against a cross before (hence the 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia) and they were unclear on some of the rules.
There is a famous incident when, as Brazil shape up to take a free-kick, a member of the Zaire defensive wall breaks out and boots the ball into the distance. What appeared to have rattled the Zaire team is that Brazil were placing men in their wall - a ruse they had never encountered and considered illegal.
Their ignorance was unsurprising. The Zairian players were out of the loop of global football.
The same is emphatically not true of the African teams today. Three years ago in Germany the African World Cup debutants were full of battle hardened professionals who had picked up experience in the major European leagues.
The global market in footballers concentrates the best players in a handful of clubs - and then scatters them around when they pull on the shirt of their national team.
And if international football is becoming less predictable than the club game, it is also clearer on a crucial aspect of the sport's appeal - representation.
The big clubs have outgrown their core communities - hardly surprising since so much of their income now comes from abroad.
In 'My Manchester United Years,' an excellent account of his club career, Sir Bobby Charlton stresses how he and manager Matt Busby were well aware of how they were representing the world's first industrial city, and of the need to demonstrate the work ethic of the club's surroundings and also supply some much needed colour.
It would be almost impossible for today's multinational Manchester United squad to feel the same bond with the city.
But when the players are on international duty, it is clear who they are representing. As the national anthem plays, their thoughts are for those they grew up with, perhaps a neighbour who gave early encouragement, maybe even a girl who snubbed them as a youngster or a teacher who said they would amount to nothing.
This idea of representation is especially strong for the South Americans, where the shirt of the national team is such an important symbol of the country.
Back in Brazil and Argentina, the European-based stars are always liable to be branded as mercenaries who are out of contact with the game in the land of their birth - when in fact the players make sacrifices to play for their national team that many Europeans would not be willing to undergo, especially in terms of travelling time.
Having almost the entire squad based on the other side of the Atlantic does create problems for the national teams of Brazil and Argentina, especially with the lack of time that the coach has to work with his players.
Diego Maradona is the latest in a line of Argentina bosses to complain that time restrictions mean that he is not a coach, but a selector.
But some would argue that the negatives are outweighed by the plus points. European experience often makes the players more professional, and constant exposure to top level competition surely has a beneficial effect on their development.
But there is a storm cloud gathering.
Bureaucratic restrictions like the 'six plus five' proposal can often have undesired effects.
They are already pushing the European clubs to plunder South American players at an ever-younger age.
Then, with less grounding in their native culture they are more vulnerable to pressure to play their international football on a flag of convenience basis.
At Manchester United, for example, there has been talk of the Brazilian full-back twins Fabio and Rafael representing Portugal, and their colleague and compatriot Rodrigo Possebon has been courted by Italy.
This is a worrying trend, the empire striking back - because if playing for an international team can indirectly be determined more by the flourish of a chequebook than an accident of birth then the soul of the game is in trouble.
Comment on today's piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) My hopes of Colombia qualifying are all but dashed. Why do you think it's so hard for them to score goals? Is there is any hope for the future?
A) It is depressing to see them like this - they're not totally out of the race for 2010, but seven goals in 14 World Cup qualifiers tells its own story, and this has been a problem for years.
It's not only the lack of goals - for me it's also a lack of quality in their play, a lack of joy, a lack of expression - a lack of many things they had in great quantities in the late 80s, early 90s.
I think the trauma of USA 94 goes deep - the whole thing exposed so many of the ills of Colombian society to the world, and the passing style of that team was scorned. Personally I think they've gone too far the other way, and need to go back to recapture some of the exhuberant inter-passing of that side in order to go forwards. It's a country with so much football potential.
Q) I am a keen follower of Italian football and one player that has certainly caught my eye in recent seasons is Ezequiel Lavezzi. I have seen him play magically at times for Napoli, and I know he has been linked with both Liverpool and Chelsea in recent years. Do you think he will move to England in this window and what do you think his chances are of securing a place in the Argentina squad?
A) He's in the squad - came off the bench in midweek in the 3-2 win away to Russia. There's so much competition for squat, nippy strikers in the Argentina line-up, so getting in to the team will not be easy.
He is, though, an excellent player - strong on the ball, excellent change of pace, can work the flanks and combine through the middle. Perhaps there are still some wild child excesses to overcome if potential is going to be transformed into promise on a weekly basis. Liverpool were supposed to have been interested in him at one time - a good season with Napoli, a few more international caps and a move to a big club in England could be his for the taking.