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Plotting a route through football's national identity maze
NATIONALITY is a thorny enough subject to address anyway – blend it with the passions ignited by sport, and you’re always going to have a volatile mix.
This week’s discussions related to the Football Assocation’s ongoing interest in Manchester United’s Belgian-born Kosovan, Adnan Januzaj, have highlighted just how difficult it is to construct hard and fast rules in a globalised world in which issues of national identity are becoming increasingly fluid and blurred.
What makes a footballer entitled to play for England? The place of his birth? His parents or grandparents’ nationality? How long he has spent in this country since emigrating from overseas?
The Januzaj issue has blown the debate wide open, with the likes of Jack Wilshere and Kevin Pietersen getting themselves embroiled in an increasingly bitter argument that has polarised opinion among sportsmen and supporters alike.
There are so many grey areas to negotiate, but at least common ground appears to exist in some areas.
Very few people would argue that you have to be born in a certain country to play for their national team.
Down the years, the England football team has called on a large number of players who were not born on English soil, but who are nevertheless regarded as 100 per cent English.
John Barnes (Jamaica) and Terry Butcher (Singapore) were both born overseas, yet they represented England with distinction in the 1980s at a time when migration levels were lower than they are now.
Your place of birth can be a somewhat arbitrary event – one of my best friends at university was a Scot whose parents had never left Scotland. His mother had to attend a course in Coventry while she was pregnant, and sure enough, that was exactly where he was born – so it is patently unfair to use that as the sole yardstick to determine nationality for the rest of someone’s life.
Similarly, it has become fairly well established that a familial link via a parent or grandparent is a sufficiently strong determinant of national identity.
Pietersen qualified to play for England’s cricket team via his English mother, and the presence of a family member with citizenship of a certain state is a logical parameter when it comes to determining someone’s suitability for an international team.
It is the residency issue that causes most consternation, with opinions varying as to how long someone needs to spend in a certain country to be regarded as a member of the nation-state.
Five years, as could theoretically be the case with Januzaj? Ten years, which would mean an 18-year-old debutant having emigrated to England at the age of eight? Fifteen years, which was the gap between Mo Farah leaving Somalia and winning his first major medal for Great Britain at the European Championships in Gothenburg?
“If you live in England for five years, it doesn’t make you English,” said Wilshere earlier this week. Well actually, Jack, in many circumstances, it does.
The Home Office’s citizenship regulations state that: “If you are over 18 and have been living in the United Kingdom for the last five years (or three years if you are married to or a civil partner of a British citizen) you may be able to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen.”
If it’s good enough for the Home Office, then it seems a decent enough position for the Football Association to adopt.
If five years of residency enable someone to apply to become a UK citizen, then five years of residency should also enable them to play for the England team.
At the moment, it wouldn’t be as clear cut as that, largely as a result of a gentleman’s agreement between the four Home Nations that states that naturalisation should only be allowed in football terms if a player has had five years of education in a country before the age of 18.
The agreement, which is not recognised by FIFA, was introduced to prevent England poaching the best Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish talent, yet it is being cited as a barrier to England approaching someone like Januzaj, even if he spends five years on English soil and becomes eligible for UK citizenship.
In a world of mass migration and the increased demolition of national barriers, particularly within an expanded European Union, it is an anachronism that needs to be addressed.
Would its abolition lead to Januzaj playing for England? Who knows. Because the one thing that has been overlooked in this whole debate is the attitude of the player himself, and ultimately, that remains the most important factor.
Nationality might be a legal construct, but it remains an intensely personal thing. If somebody regards themselves as English, who are we or anyone else to tell them that they are wrong?
If, in five years time, Januzaj regards himself as an Englishman and has not committed himself to another nation – something that seems extremely unlikely given his confirmed affiliation to Kosovo, which could well have its own national team at some stage in the future, and obvious talent which makes it extremely unlikely that he will not be capped by someone soon – it would be unfair to prevent him representing the country he regards as ‘home’.
Listen to the likes of Farah and Pietersen discussing their nationality, and it is clear that the concept of ‘being English’ means something to them.
That cannot be the only determinant of sporting nationality – but it should undoubtedly be an important factor.
THE more observant among you will have noticed that the column has been absent for a month or so. Unfortunately, I’ve been out of action because my new daughter has been ill.
So while this is a sports column, I’m going to take advantage of my role to say a massive thank you to the doctors and nurses on the high-dependency children wards at James Cook, in Middlesbrough, and the RVI, in Newcastle.
Quite rightly, this newspaper highlights when things go wrong in our region’s hospitals. All I can say is that my admiration and respect for the NHS could not be any higher.
It’s at times like this where you’re meant to say that sport is an irrelevance, and to a large extent it is when you’re surrounded by children battling for their lives.
But having spent quite a lot of time in hospital recently, I’ve been struck by just how much of the conversation between nurses, doctors and anxious parents revolves around sport.
Whether it was the consultant popping in to check on the score of the Newcastle vs Leeds game, or the Liverpool-supporting dad wanting to discuss Daniel Sturridge’s England prospects while we waited for the kettle to boil, sport was an important release from the painful realities of everyday life.
When push comes to shove, sport is an irrelevance. But perhaps it’s one of the irrelevancies that makes life worth living.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
The Newcastle United striker made it five goals in three games as his double secured a crucial 2-1 win over Cardiff City. In the process, he also helped keep manager Alan Pardew in a job.
CHUMPS OF THE WEEK
GRAHAM POLL and MARK HALSEY
The former referees traded insults in public this week, with neither emerging from the squabble with any credit. Desperate for publicity and clearly convinced of their own importance, they’re both as bad as each other.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
TREVE WINNING THE PRIX DE L’ARC DE TRIOMPHE
It was billed as one of the most competitive Arcs in many a year, but it turned out to be little more than a procession as French filly Treve demolished her opponents to secure a hugely popular success at Longchamp.
TIP OF THE WEEK
They’ve laboured through most of the qualifying campaign, but surely England aren’t going to slip up now? Daniel Sturridge will start up front tonight, and the 7-4 available about the Liverpool striker scoring at any time and England winning appeals.
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