Here it comes, then. Generation Z: international football mode. No doubt there will be a temptation in some corners to interpret Ben White’s refusal of an England call-up, three months out from Euro 2024, through the prism of generational anxiety.

Vegan sausage rolls and moral relativism brought us to this. It starts with turning down an England cap. It ends with throwing soup at statues and refusing to storm a Russian machine gun nest on the grounds this might constitute a micro-aggression.

In reality the most surprising thing about White’s decision to exempt himself from England duty is that this hasn’t happened more overtly more often. Some will reflexively blame Gareth Southgate, will see a failure of management and bridge-building, of St Crispin’s Day motivational powers. But the more likely outcome is that this is going to happen a great deal more in the years to come, to the extent the current era of consensus may come to look like a golden age.

One of Southgate’s first acts in the England job was to speak openly about the need to keep motivating players to want to come and do this. Scroll back down the decades and players have always ducked out of England squads, usually under cover of injury. Paul Scholes retired from England duty aged 29 because he just wasn’t enjoying it any more. Raheem Sterling missed a few squads not long before his ultimate dropping.

The difference here is that neither White nor Southgate are mucking about this time. The player made it clear in advance through his club that he didn’t want to be considered. And Southgate has also now gone public, speaking in great detail on Thursday afternoon about the process of White’s refusal, making it clear that as far as he, Gareth, is concerned, this is entirely White’s decision, that he has done all he can to encourage him to join the squad.

There are good reasons for being clear about this. Most immediately, White’s absence is a significant blow where England are weakest. Kyle Walker remains first choice at right-back but White’s form has been at least as good. He’s more productive in attack. He has an excellent link on that side with Bukayo Saka. More to the point White also plays centre-back. Not regularly these days, but he is still playing every week for the league leaders, is fit, mobile, good on the ball and agreeable spiky. It is hard to see how he couldn’t at least be pushing Harry Maguire, who isn’t any of these things, for a spot alongside John Stones. Tournament games are decided on the finest of margins. Not being able to call one of the few available defenders playing regularly for an elite club is clearly suboptimal.

Raheem Sterling featured in the 2022 World Cup quarter-final against France before missing a few squads and ultimately being dropped from England duty. Photograph: Tolga Bozoğlu/EPA

Which brings us back to the issue of fault and blame. Southgate’s pull with his squad, the internal energy, the shared team libido, has been a source of strength. But there is no obvious precedent for a potentially first-choice England player in his mid-20s prime turning down a place in a tournament year. Why is this happening now?

The answer, as ever, is structural. International football is subject to the same forces acting on every part of this overheated global entertainment industry, the tug of money and scheduling, the breaking down of the traditional calendar. Zoom out and it is surprising so many players, stretched thin by this most relentless of elite careers, always in physical pain of some kind, desiccated by the constant 24-hour-a-day exposure, still manage to turn up at all.

There is also a sense of shifting needs, shifting loyalties, of the unprecedented riches to be earned in club football. For so long playing for your country was a rational as well as an emotional choice. International caps meant greater income, increased status, sponsorship uplifts.

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But now? Strip it all back to the bottom line and players are so well rewarded in their day jobs there is an argument it is almost a little careless to risk that by taking on a semi-voluntary ceremonial role every other summer. Play up! Play up! And play the game! But also, maybe not. In the end international football is simply loyalty, habit, duty, feelings. And feelings are tender things. They come and go.

For now, and with a delicious-looking tournament summer to come, White’s refusal feels like an oddity that can be glossed. He may well be back in time, perhaps even after the summer if Southgate moves on.

But his absence is a reminder of the fragility of these things, the fact international football basically exists because people want it to, that it ceases when that ceases. It is also a genuine blow for a squad that for all its strengths still carries genuine blank spots, not least the hole in central defence that a willing White might have filled.


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