I don't think it was always like this. Ten years ago, certainly 20, players were eager to play for their country, and clubs let them. Or so it seems in the warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned images of my memory.
In recent years, it has been less of an obvious connection. Clubs have begun to come ahead of country.
In Germany 2006, a leading Brazilian analyst suggested the country's players didn't even want to be in the World Cup. They wanted to rest. They feared injury. It didn't make economic sense. They were too good to be messing around at the World Cup.
And that is why Brazil went out in the quarterfinals, according to the author of the piece. A collective lack of interest in playing hard enough to win.
Now we have another brouhaha developing. Involving Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal and Real Madrid.
Ronaldo is the reigning FIFA world player of the year. And he just arrived at Real Madrid, from Manchester United, at a cost of about $120 million. So, yeah, Real has a serious investment in the guy.
Real's issues are two-fold. The last time Portugal had a big qualifying match to play, Oct. 10, Ronaldo showed up and lasted 26minutes before he aggravated the ankle injury Real already had said he had. That's beef No. 1.
Now, Portugal is in one of the two-game playoffs for the final four European berths into South Africa 2010. A fairly big deal, that is. In the World Cup or out of it, determined in matches Nov. 14 and 18. Portugal vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is a very solid side.
Beef No. 2 for Real is ... it says Ronaldo is still hurt. And doesn't want Portugal to take their investment and mess him up some more.
Portugal's coach, Carlos Queiroz, insists he is going to call in Ronaldo, no matter what Real says. Queiroz wants national team doctors to look at the kid. Real is unhappy. Ronaldo probably is torn between trying to please both club and country.
This sort of thing no longer is unusual. Clubs suggesting their expensive players skip this or that national match. Because countries don't pay the sort of money the clubs do.
This is bad for the World Cup because it means some of the best teams may not advance because some of their best players won't want to play -- or their clubs won't want them to.
This will get worse before it gets better as long as clubs are throwing around enormous sums at players ... and country's can answer with only pin money and the gratitude of a country -- unless their teams fall short of expectations.