The Great Nationality Debate: Wilshere and England

posted 8 Jan 2014, 12:38 by Richard Brook
Originally posted here: http://bit.ly/1er5MQC

When is an Englishman not an Englishman? This has been the much debated question in the wake of Jack Wilshere’s comments regarding the FA sounding out Adnan Januzaj. The Manchester United prospect already has a wealth of international teams that he might choose to represent, yet the FA have been courting the player with a view to him one day pulling on an England shirt. Wilshere has given the idea short shrift, not just as regards Januzaj, but other potential players in similar circumstances. It is difficult to be sure whether one agrees with Jack Wilshere’s reasoning or not as the language he used left too many questions unanswered. Whatever backdrop to his beliefs, I fully support Wilshere’s assertion that Januzaj should not be considered for England duty

It is nothing personal against the Manchester United teenager; players simply should not be able to choose which national team they represent by virtue of simply changing their country of residence, of their own free will as a grown adult. FIFA’s rule that you can qualify for a national team if you live continuously in the territory of the particular national association, for at least five years after the age of eighteen, is plainly wrong. The rule undermines the inherent pride that should always underpin international football.

Januzaj is eligible to play for Belgium the country of his birth, or Albania, Turkey or Serbia by virtue of the requisite familial connections. The winger scored twice, on his full debut, as Manchester United came from behind to beat Sunderland 2-1 last weekend. The player was named as a substitute in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever match in charge. Current United manager David Moyes has admitted the FA have been in contact and England boss Roy Hodgson is quoted as saying: “There’s no doubt he’s a real talent and we have our eyes on him but a lot will have to be discussed.”

Regardless of a player’s talents the erosion of the old values in football gives cause for concern. Players were once genuinely proud to represent particular clubs and showed real loyalty to their employers. As soon as balance of power shifted and it became too easy for players to change clubs that sense of respect of a club’s traditions was lost forever. It would be an unmitigated disaster for international football to suffer the same fate.

There are issues of cultural inclusivity, of course, and with all the negative press involving football and racism in the last year and the sport would do well to remain mindful of this fact. Some might consider it better to avoid unnecessary politicisation of the game altogether. Wilshere could have answered that it was a matter for the relevant bodies to decide and the press to write about, and that his job was just to play football. The issue would have been diffused instantly. We would also have learned less about Wilshere and missed out on an important debate.

Instead Wilshere made emotive statements such as “If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English” and “The only people who should play for England are English people”. The comments drew criticism from some quarters, not least from South African-born, England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, for whom the matter will have understandably been close to the bone.

We should remind ourselves, once again, that the person speaking these words is not someone employed to make political decisions. Nor is Wilshere primarily employed as a public speaker, and certainly not on matters so contentious. There can be no suggestion that Wilshere’s words appear to be borne out of malice.

The main difficulty with the Arsenal midfielder’s choice of words is the not-so-simple question of what it is to be English anyway. Like America, we are a mixed up mongrel nation, shaped throughout our history by a continual influx of people from other countries. Certain American’s place great stock in a list of surnames, of people, that arrived from across the sea, as the first settlers, on The Mayflower. In so doing, they conveniently forget the indigenous people of their land. The point is not that the settlers on The Mayflower were not American; the point is that throughout history people have had different opinions on the measure of being a particular nationality.

England and Britain has been no different. From Caesar’s Romans invading Celtic Britain, sending the native people fleeing to Wales and Ireland, onwards we have been subject to many invasions. The Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans have all left their mark on British society and what it is to be English or British. So when Wilshere says that only English people should play for England does he mean the Irish, the Welsh, the Italians, the Germans, the Scandinavians or the French?

Of course he does not mean any of them. Everyone knows full well what Jack Wilshere was getting at because no-one discussing this matter is talking nationality in a true sense. We are discussing the rules of football. There are no political ramifications to the decision and there should be no political ramifications to the words.

This debate does not originate from anyone’s desire to discriminate against anyone else. It originates in what is right for the sport of football. It is right that a player need not be born in a country to represent their football team. Why should players who moved, as a child for example, to the only country they have ever called home have to play somewhere else that may not matter to them in the same way? They will play for their home country with the same pride as any other member of the squad.  In other sports this encompasses Mo Farah’s situation and Kevin Pietersen is a special case as his story involves him being actively discriminated against on grounds of race.

It is also understandable that players might want to represent the country their family is from. The tribal nature of continuing a family tradition can be a tremendous source of pride for many people. It makes no difference where a player’s passion and drive, to give his all for his country, comes from as long as it is there. It will matter just as much as it does to the player born and bred in the country, both players will be living their dreams.

The rule that allows grown adults to move to a country that means nothing to them and wait five years, before representing that country is soulless and must be removed for the good of the sport. It goes against everything that representing your country should be about. What is to stop the top players of lesser nations refusing international football until the big-money club move comes along and then later adopting a country that challenges for international trophies instead of their own?

International football should not be reduced to an elective career move. International football is the last bastion of pride and loyalty in a sport that has already had its heart ripped out, by its own ever increasing commerciality, and should be treated with the respect it deserves.

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