Friday, October 11, 2013

Are we close to a 'Foreigners With Benefits' rule?

(Here's a feature from our Special Writer in England in response to our article about nationality and sport.)

An English footballer made headlines this week by venturing an actual opinion. In the abstract at least, this is something to be welcomed in these times of clichéd platitudes and football authorities trying to sanitise the game to the extent of criminalising words whatever the context. After all, the concept of free speech has to be extended to those with whom you disagree.

That hasn’t stopped people criticising Jack Wilshere in the name of liberalism or progression though. “The only people who should play for England are English people,” said the Arsenal man, revealing a hitherto unknown interest in politics and an interesting take on what all this means. “We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat.”

Various opponents since 1966 might beg to differ and Wilshere was surely just unfortunate that his comments came at the moment a power vacuum opened up within the English Defence League. But whether or not he made his point eloquently enough, his wider view has the backing of his club boss, Arsène Wenger, and Harry Redknapp, who should actually be the England manager, according to Harry Redknapp.

Pertinently, Wilshere’s assertion that “if you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English” is not only supported by geography students the world over, but helpful in highlighting a rule many feel is absurd: that a player can be capped for his country of residence after a continuous stay of that length after his 18th birthday. The question came about because England haven’t had a proper left winger for 20 years and Manchester United seem to have unearthed one in Adnan Januzaj – an 18-year-old who already has as many claims to separate nationalities as the British Isles but who might fancy playing in front of the ridiculously priced, and consequently empty Club Wembley seats some time after his qualification date in 2018.

“If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain,” added Wilshere, no doubt to the relief of Xavi, Iniesta and Fàbregas.

But here’s the rub. Wilshere’s entitled to say who he thinks should be eligible for England – and he was later at pains to point out that he has “great respect” for the many athletes who represent England and Great Britain despite being born abroad – but any rule change wouldn’t just affect England. It has to be the same for all countries, even though definitions of nationality don’t always tally: France have long chosen players from former colonies and dependent territories because there is a tradition of seeing those countries as “greater France”, and yet some players born and raised in France choose to represent their ancestral lands because of “a lack of integration”. The Italians have been discussing this for so many decades that they have long used the word “oriundi” for “foreign” players – mainly South American with Italian ancestry – who turn out for the Azzurri. And let’s not forget that plenty of Wilshere’s compatriots are currently raising their children in Singapore, Malaysia, the Emirates and many other countries besides, without a second thought of them ever being anything other than English.

Former France captain Patrick Vieira was born in Dakar, Senegal

So the real question is: what’s nationalism? Because the truth is that it can mean very different things. English and Irish nationalism, for example, are almost polar opposites: the former tainted by association with colonialism, imperialism and arrogance; the latter feted for rebelling against its controlling neighbour. It’s not that England only attract the kind of people who’ve just shed a tear over Tommy Robinson’s departure, it’s just that no one is denying they have their share of people whose political persuasions are quite far to the right. Of Enoch Powell.

It’s easy for me to sneer. I’m English but I don’t support England. I support Manchester United and, when I was growing up, England was the team Bryan Robson used to get injured playing for. When I was following my team around the continent, some ‘England fans’ were hanging effigies of David Beckham and singing “if the Nevilles play for England so can I” so many of us just assumed they were all people who couldn’t read. I’m lucky because I watch international games as a neutral. But I fully appreciate that many people are good supporters of clubs who don’t routinely play in elite competitions and for whom “Ing-er-lund” represents a genuine chance to support a team that, at least in theory, is taken seriously around the world.

So maybe the question of whether England should forsake the “foreigners with benefits” rule and “go native” should be left to the supporters’ club. Even if FIFA permits “nationality” through grand-parentage, Jack thinks England should make a stand for clear, black and white lines.

It won’t be very popular if Januzaj scores against England, but at least this burning issue stopped people talking about Wilshere smoking for a while.