Letters from London: Van Persie move puts international game in perspective

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LONDON – While United States soccer fans celebrated their men’s national team making history, English football fans kept their eyes on the start of the Premier League season, a state which would be unremarkable if the national team wasn’t also playing on Wednesday night. With the country’s interest in sport having temporarily regressed after the Summer Olympics, the Three Lions’ match in Bern against Italy was largely ignored despite the team getting revenge for their Euro 2012 quarterfinal loss to the Azzurri.

It’s not just the soccer that’s being overlooked. Last year, England cricket’s test match with India drew attention away from the Premier League in the week before kickoff. This year, only a controversy surrounding batsman Kevin Pietersen (dropped from the national team after sending incendiary text messages to members of opposing South Africa) put the match back in the headlines. The game itself was having trouble getting traction. England seems intent on giving sport a break until the Premier League kicks off Saturday afternoon.

There was, however, one story that broke through the slumber, with cell phones around London sent buzzing around 9 p.m. Wednesday as news of Robin van Persie’s transfer matriculated through the city. The Arsenal captain, who was sent to enter the final year of his deal at the Emirates, was sold to Manchester United, with reports on the price ranging from £22 to £24 million (or, near $35-$37 million). Though the move had been a fait accompli for some time, it’s not often you see the previous season’s player of the year switch sides of a rivalry, even if that rivalry’s on the wane. “RVP” swapping Arsenal for United was probably worth interrupting England’s slumber.

But the morning papers were mixed in their excitement for the story. The Guardian featured van Persie’s image above the fold, teasing their Sport section’s coverage. The Independent had a small image in its masthead, but there are always three inside stories featured near the top. The Times had a half-inch note on its front page’s bottom right, while the Daily Telegraph didn’t even put it on its front page.

No national team news made any front pages despite a late Jermain Defoe goal giving the Three Lions a 2-1 win. In a country that has a somewhat fractured view of its national team, the coverage is little surprise. For many, England’s national team represents London more than the rest of the country. A common complaint implies players from outside London’s clubs are often neglected, with Manchester United, Liverpool, and now Manchester United the exceptions. Players like Darren Bent, often cited by these critics, have to clearly outperform corresponding players from clubs in the capital. He’s not going get any benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the reasons soccer fans overlooked the national team, the treatment of the van Persie and Three Lions’ stories provided convenient commentary on the state of the international game in England. A player transfer in the club world was worthy of front page consideration. The national teams’ match with Italy – a game that was so highly anticipated for its historic implications when it was played at Euro 2012 – never got traction.

The timing of the Italy match, taking place after the European Championship and Summer Olympics, also contributed to the lack of attention, but in a country that’s home to the most popular soccer league in the world, it’s no shock the international game gets overlooked. England begins World Cup qualifying on Sep. 7, by which time its slumber will be long over.