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A week in Sardinia. Three weeks in Portugal. A week in the USA. To many it would be an ideal summer, although perhaps not in the company of the Neville brothers - but to Paul Scholes it was too much.

That, after all, was supposed to be the close season. Next week, the Champions League campaign begins, a treadmill of excellence that, Scholes hopes, will end in Istanbul next May after six further trips abroad. And that is without mentioning the England World Cup qualifiers in Austria, Poland and Azerbaijan. And then there is another proposed US tour next summer.

The football world was almost universally declared to be "in shock" at Scholes's decision this week to retire from the international game. It is certainly frustrating for those who saw the midfield four England fielded in Portugal blossoming into potential World Cup winners.

But is it really surprising, when faced with such a schedule, that a player whose heart flinches every time he leaves the shadow of the Pennines should call it a day?

There are still romantics who believe that representing England is the height of a player's career. But they are living in a world of Woodbines in which families still cluster round the radio at Christmas to hear what the king has to say. David Beckham is one of them, but most of football has moved on.

After all, in an age in which Brazilians play for Japan, Australians for Croatia and Lawrie Sanchez can be born in Lambeth yet turn down Ecuador to turn out for Northern Ireland, a side he would later go on to manage, what exactly does a national team represent?

Even if patriotism were not a debased emotion, the truth is that internationals are no longer the pinnacle of the sport. Even if Brazil and France - the top sides in the Fifa rankings - were to meet in the World Cup final in two years it would not represent the best football had to offer.

"In the Champions League you can take the best players from anywhere," says Mircea Lucescu, the former Romania and Internazionale coach who is now in charge of the Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk. "As a coach, you can build the team to your shape, rather than making do with what is in your country."

And club sides, of course, because they work together on a daily basis, are better drilled and play with a greater fluidity. That has always been true but, as players grow ever fitter and the pace of the game intensifies, the milliseconds gained by mutual understanding become increasingly important.

The World Cup and the European Championship are both great holidays, too popular with fans and sponsors to disappear, but to those players who do not share Beckham's image of himself as the hero of his nation, they are increasingly becoming just another exhausting distraction.

Faced with an overcrowded schedule, Scholes could hardly have jettisoned United, who do, after all, pay his wages. Yet there is also a deeper instinct at work. Players are not just after money and adulation; there is also in most a desire to test themselves against the best - and that comes not in the World Cup, but in the Champions League.

England have as great a chance of lifting the next World Cup as they have had in four decades. But Manchester United have a similar hope of winning the Champions League, and that goal, in terms of the quality of football that would have to be played to achieve it, is the greater prize. Scholes, of course, missed United's 1999 triumph through suspension.

The United midfielder may be an extreme case, but he is not the only player to quit England at the age of 29. Alan Shearer's decision to do similarly was prompted by injury but he too was gambling England caps for potential club success. Both have sacrificed international football to give themselves the best chance of proving themselves at the highest level, and they can hardly be blamed for that.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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