The eligibility row surrounding Adnan Januzaj is masking a wider issue within English football, which continues to show itself to be resistant to progress and change.
Januzaj is unlikely to play for England. Roy Hodgson – whose comments confirming the FA’s interest in the player set off the row – was merely stating the facts, that he could become eligible and if so England would rightly consider him. It would be negligent not to.
But the probability is that Januzaj will not wait until he is 23 to make a decision as he would miss a World Cup and a European Championship, while he has closer links to at least three other nations in Belgium, Albania and – should Serbia and its allies change their tune and allow the UN and thus FIFA to sanction it – Kosovo.
My personal opinion is that Januzaj should play for Belgium, the country that gave his parents an escape route from the war-torn Balkans, the country whose football and academic education developed a mature and intelligent footballer and young man. It is also arguably the best-placed national team of all those he is eligible for, with Turkey, Serbia and Croatia also reportedly options.
But, on matters of national loyalty, my opinion – and yours – is irrelevant. Nationality is simply the legal relationship between a person and a nation state, and naturalisation is defined as the legal status of acquiring a new citizenship through residency and the fulfilment of pre-determined obligations to that state.
Once those stipulations are fulfilled, a sense of statehood and national pride is entirely personal. Do we revoke the citizenship of the British born because they emigrate? Clearly not. And do we prevent those who have acquired citizenship from showing pride for their adopted country through sport? Surely not.
And who is Jack Wilshere to argue the toss of what constitutes an Englishman? And who is anyone, for that matter? Most assumed he hadn’t thought his recently espoused concept of Englishness through, but according to a poem he wrote and tweeted in 2011, he does have a general opinion about nationality:
“Through thick and thin until I die my ENGLISH PRIDE stands so high......happy st Georges day. My ENGLISH pride I will not hide. The ENGLISH race I wont disgrace. My ENGLISH blood flows hot and true and ENGLISH people I’ll stand by you.”
It is easy to pick apart juvenile prose from a then-teenage footballer, but one reference in particular reduces the credibility of Wilshere’s recent comments about the England national team – Englishness is not a race, but a sense of national identity. If Englishness were to be defined in racial terms, the majority of native-born English would find their genealogy traceable to lands beyond these shores and we would be limited to selecting the likes of John Terry and Joe Hart. Two public defenders of Englishness – singer Morrissey and recently-defected EDL clown Tommy Robinson – are of Irish parentage; non-white players aside, many of our best footballers are also of Irish or other foreign descent, with Wayne Rooney and Gary Cahill high-profile examples. There are many others.
Wilshere almost certainly does not define Englishness in racial terms; the above is probably a result of a muddled use of language; artistic license if you will. Certainly, if he defines ‘English’ thus, he would have a hard time accepting the recent call-up of Arsenal team-mate and friend Kieran Gibbs as a replacement for Ashley Cole, both of whom are mixed race. There is absolutely no suggestion that Wilshere feels this way.
Even if he defines it in terms of blood or birth, then what of Wilfried Zaha and England U21 players Nathaniel Chalobah and Saido Berahino? Victor Moses – eligible for England and Nigeria – was criticised for plumping for the country of his birth and not that which offered him asylum after his father was murdered. And that’s without even mentioning the legion of plastic Irish, Scottish and Welsh players who have trotted out for national teams other than those they supported as children. You’re dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.
And what of Owen Hargreaves, who has an English father but is about as British as Greg Rusedski? He may have been really excited aboot ze Champions League final, but why should he be more eligible through accident of parentage than, say, Mikel Arteta, who has lived and played in Britain for twice as long as Hargreaves?
Wilshere hasn’t thought this through. Whether in prose or press conference, that poem and Wilshere’s recent statements show that nationality as a concept is undefinable to many and – once legal requirements are met – national pride should be the business of no-one but the individual concerned.
There are multiple reasons for migration, but the overwhelming sentiment seems to be that a player who was not born in England should be allowed to represent his adopted country if he was raised here. But how does one define ‘raised’? Where does childhood and education start and finish? The Home Nations made a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that naturalisation should only be allowed in football terms if a player had five years of education in the country before the age of 18. If that rule – which is NOT recognised by FIFA or in accordance with its naturalisation statutes – was followed, then John Barnes barely qualified, having moved to the UK aged 12 but left school before that five years was completed. A five years which seems arbitrary.
And that gentleman’s agreement was not made with naturalised foreigners in mind – it was made to prevent England poaching the best Welsh, Scottish and Irish talents, many of whom join English clubs as school leavers and who, under FIFA’s rules, would be eligible to represent England after five years residency, regardless of age or education.
Yet that agreement has been exploited in quite ungentlemanly fashion by Scotland, and not just because they boast Jordan Rhodes – who has no Scottish heritage – in their ranks. The Oldham-born Rhodes, who has English parents and speaks with a Lancashire accent, was eligible for Scotland having gone to school there while his father played football for Dunfermline, St Johnstone and Airdrie. Meanwhile, Scotland even broke the eligibility criteria they invoked when blocking England’s bid for Arteta: former Hearts winger Andrew Driver, again English-born but part-raised in Scotland, fell a few months short of the five years pre-18, but after confirming it mattered not a jot with FIFA (of course it doesn’t – it’s not in their rules, and they ratified the agreement at the Home Nations' request) Driver was deemed eligible.
Driver (left) and Rhodes were both born in England to English parents
That Driver’s career has since stalled is irrelevant – the gentleman’s agreement that Scotland wish to protect their own has been used to weaken England’s options through Arteta, and to strengthen their own at England’s expense through Driver and arguably Rhodes. The gentleman's agreement has been voided.
The self-appointed rules are vague and do not stand up to scrutiny. They are so flimsy that FIFA does not even acknowledge them – their own rules are significantly more stringent than most other sports, and are more than sufficient for football.
And, crucially, the Home Nations rules place England (and the others) at a competitive disadvantage to their direct rivals.
Spain’s dominance of world football has come with two naturalised lynchpins in midfield; 2008 European champion Marcos Senna is Brazilian, the multi-national Thiago Alcantra is Italian-born of Brazilian parentage and has spent around half his life in Spain as a result of his father working there. Diego Costa of Atletico Madrid is 100% Brazilian but will probably score the goals that take Spain to the latter stages of next year's World Cup.
Italy, meanwhile, currently boast Daniel Osvaldo in their ranks, and had fellow Argentine Mauro Camoranesi in the midfield when they won the 2006 World Cup. Both had Italian great-grandfathers, apparently, which is a tenuous bloodline that would not qualify one for British citizenship. And let’s not get started on Germany, who naturalise Brazilians, Africans and Poles with alarming regularity, not to mention the lesser European nations.
Why are the Home Nations so special? It’s not like our national teams are spoilt for choice; with decreasing percentages of eligible players trotting out in the Premier League, surely England should be looking to naturalised players with more frequency? It is a natural function of English club football’s wealth and status. The variety should arguably be exploited, not shunned. If we're going to open up our game to the world, we should reap the rewards, not suffer the consequences.
But this is typical of the disconnect between an FA steeped in tradition and a football culture obsessed with winning in the context of a global game.
Post industrialisation, mass migration became a more common occurrence; post-WWII, it became a global phenomenon. Yet, in one of the most diverse and tolerant nations in Europe, our approach to national team football is steeped in the dark ages. Ethnic minorities and first-generation immigrants enjoy more rights, freedom and wider success in Britain than they do in Spain and Italy – whether they are economic migrants, like Januzaj and Barnes (whose father was given a job in London), or refugees escaping conflict or famine.
Yet the Spanish and Italians have no qualms whatsoever about selecting naturalised players, while England clings to some quaint concept of Englishness that is rigid to some, yet utterly malleable to others.
In order to compete with the world, the Home Nations have to scrap this ‘gentleman’s agreement’, and leave the decision to those who matter: FIFA, the players, and the selectors. Any other ‘solution’ is a fudge.
Should the Home Nations scrap their ‘gentleman’s agreement’ about naturalised players? Have your say below!
By Reda Maher / on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport