England manager Roy Hodgson has denied he has called up rising star Wilfried Zaha in an attempt to persuade him to shun Ivory Coast.
Zaha was born in the African nation and, while he has travelled to Sweden for tonight’s friendly, has stated that it remains a “50-50” decision as to which country he will pledge his international allegiance. The 20-year-old, who has played for England’s under-age sides, will not be bound to Hodgson’s team should he appear tonight because it is not a competitive fixture. And, in a veiled warning, Hodgson made it clear that he expected any player to have gone through England’s under-age system to welcome a call-up to the full nation team, adding any player who did not was not welcome in his squad.
“If any players prefer to play for a national team other than England they are welcome to do so,” said Hodgson. “If our national team is not strong enough motivation for them then they are not the type of player we want anyway. Perhaps I naively assume that, when you give a player who has played for the under-19s and under-21s the chance, they would want to play for the national team. I’d expect them to cycle there. I’d expect they’d be thankful for the opportunity.”
Hodgson dismissed suggestions Zaha’s call-up was made to try to help tie him down to England. Zaha has hit the headlines with Crystal Palace this season but Hodgson said the player had long been in his plans, revealing he had tracked him since he was boss at West Brom. “He has not been chosen on the basis of one short training session,” he said. “He has been selected on the basis of the past couple of years. He was a target of West Brom when I was there. I know what qualities he brings. When the opportunity arose with a gap in the squad to bring him it was an obvious chance to bring him in.”
Hodgson said England expected to get clearance from Fifa to allow Arsenal defender Carl Jenkinson, who played under-age football for Finland, to appear in the game. Steven Gerrard is set to win his 100th England cap in tonight’s game in Stockholm and admitted to nerves.
“I’m excited. I’m slightly nervous, which I haven’t been for a while,” he said. “I can’t wait for the game to start. My England journey has had ups and downs, a lot like any other player. I still feel I have a few chapters to write yet. I don’t feel I’m at the end. I’m really happy with my form in an England shirt at the moment.”
Gerrard is in sight of David Beckham’s England record of 115 caps for an outfield player but denied surpassing that mark was a motivation.
“I don’t know [if he will pass the mark], we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “David is a hero of mine. I’ve always looked up to him and I enjoyed playing alongside him. But, to be honest, it is not important to me if I beat David’s record. I just want to qualify this team for the next big tournament.”
Swedish captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic has hailed the qualities of England counterpart Gerrard. Ibrahimovic believes Gerrard “plays more like an international player rather than a normal English player”. The Liverpool icon will clock up his century of appearances for his country providing he suffers no reaction to the knee injury suffered during the weekend draw at Chelsea.
Ibrahimovic said: “I think Steven Gerrard is a fantastic player. He has been loyal to his club, he has won some big trophies with the club. He always plays at a high level when he is not injured. He is a very good person to have as a team-mate in your team. He always gives 200 per cent, is a good fighter and has good skills and a good touch with the ball also. He feels more like an international player rather than a normal English player.
“English players have big hearts always fighting, very aggressive but, for me, Gerrard feels more international. He has more skills than the normal player.”
Swedish coach Eric Hamren echoed Ibrahimovic’s sentiments. He said: “I really like him as a player. He has something extra. I’m sorry he has had some injuries which have maybe stopped his top level. But when he is not injured, he is a top player because of his skills to read the game and his skills to make the passes, especially the long ones. He has shown how good he is for England and his club.”
Ibrahimovic is excited about Fulham winger Alexander Kacaniklic, who scored in the weekend 3-3 draw at Arsenal and is starting to establish himself in the Sweden side. The Paris St Germain player said: “He has a great left foot and has done well for his club and fantastically here with the national team and is making a real impact.”