Is Naturalisation a dirty word in the muddy waters of International selection?

“If you’ve lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play. It doesn’t mean you can play for that country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain. For me an English player should play for England really.”

The words of Jack Wilshere as he makes a play for the recently vacated English Defence League leadership (I kid, I kid!). The Arsenal and England midfielder was giving his response to to the much discussed suggestion that Manchester United’s 18 year old wunderkind Adnan Januzaj – born in Brussels to Kosovan-Albanian parents – could one day qualify to play for the three Lions. After moved to England two years ago having joining the Reds from Anderlecht, Januzaj’s eligibility hasn’t really been on the agenda. That all changed following his match-winning display against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light when David Moyes revealed to the world that the FA had been in contact asking about his possible availability.

Naturally, the debate has raged since then. Many people echo the sentiments of the Arsenal man. How could someone who is actually in no way English qualify to represent this country? It is the kind of suggestion that would have been dismissed out of hand many years ago but the changing world, particularly in sport, suggests it’s not quite the absurd possibility that it may initially appear.

A little over 12 months ago, much of the country was united by the showpiece spectacle taking place known as the Olympic Games. On home soil, Britain triumphed in event after event picking up medals like sweets at a pic’n’mix. It didn’t go unnoticed that, Mohamed ‘Mo’ Farah, a man whose 5,000 metre gold medal on ‘Super Saturday’ was probably celebrated more that any other throughout the games, was not what some may call a typical Brit. Born in Mogadishu, Farah came to England aged 8 and spent his formative years living and training in the UK, therefore qualifying to run for Britain. However, rather than bask in the glory of his many successes, a certain national newspaper decided instead to take aim at him and the rest of 11% of Team GB athletes competing at the games by labelling them ‘Plastic Brits’ – the obvious implication being that their claim to ‘Britishness’ was somehow wrong. If Januzaj did eventually play for England, I guess that would make him similarly ‘plastic’.

Levelling these kinds of insults seeks to draw a distinction between Nationality and naturalisation. Jack Wilshere makes the understandable point about simply living in a country not making you ‘from’ that country. But as we well know, that is a far too simplistic summary. In the modern world, the rise in movement and mass migration means that your country of birth is not necessary where you may spend your life, nor might you ever even lay claim to it as any part of your nationality. In this country we have something called a citizenship test meaning a person can come here, devote themselves to learning the history of Britain and embrace the core values that make up ‘Britishness’ and fundamentally, qualify to be British. Naturalisation is a opportunity afforded to people who move to a different country for business or family purposes so people will ask why football (or sport in general) should be any different.

A player can move countries to join a club in at a young age, grow up and spend most, if not all, of his career there. To deny him the opportunity to represent that country seems contradictory.

In football, the waters are muddied further when factors such as ancestry are taken into consideration. Players can qualify for different nations simply through their grandparents. This seems to be the cut-off point but it is completely arbitrary. If you trace your heritage back further, perhaps you will open yourself up to a whole world of opportunities. When Wilshere talks about ‘English players playing for England’ does he mean those of purely Anglo roots?

Perhaps, in this world of multiculturalism, sport is the last bastion of retaining something resembling national identity – prompting the ‘Plastic Brit’ accusations in athletics and much of the mostly amateur sports in the Olympics. But what of those most British of sporting institutions Rugby and cricket? In 2008, Tongan-born Leslie Viaikolo, who had already represented New Zealand in Rugby League, played 5 tests for England. Andrew Strauss, one of England’s most successful cricket captains, just so happened to be born in Johannesburg and spent time growing up in Melbourne.

Even in football, Brazilian Marcos Senna played a key role in the heart of Spain’s midfield during the successful Euro 2008 campaign while his fellow countryman Deco represented Portugal 75 times. Another Brazilian, Cacau played and scored for Germany during the 2010 World Cup. The Germans also have given opportunities to Ghanahian-born Gerald Asamoah and embraced Polish born Miroslav Klose and Luckas Podolski as their own. The France team that won the World Cup in 1998 were famously referred to as the ‘Rainbow Warriors’ due to the large multicultural make up of their squad.

Let us not ignore the fact that England’s very own John Barnes was born in Jamaica to Jamaican parents. However, rather than prove to be a trailblazer, he may well turn out to be an exception.

The attitude of Wilshere, and others, will result England being left behind. It also seems somewhat ironic that there is a desperation to retain a purely English identity with regard to the playing staff when so much else of ‘English football’ autonomy has been lost over the years. The fact the FA have resorted to hiring, not one but two overseas coaches in little over a decade suggest to me that the horse has very much bolted as far as the national side is concerned. Beyond that, you won’t find another country in the world where the top club side are almost all owned by foreign owners. It’s difficult to beat the drum for national identity in football when local and regional identity in the sport is fast eroding away. In 2008, many celebrated the fact two English clubs reached the Champions League final in Moscow. On one side, you had an American owned team, managed by a Scot, whose best player was Portuguese and were sponsored by an American insurance company. While on the other, you had a Russian owned team managed by an Israeli, whose best player was Ivorian and sponsored by a Japanese electronics firm. The only thing ‘English’ about the final was John Terry’s penalty miss.

The most curious thing about this whole Januzaj debate is that he isn’t even yet eligible, nor, by all accounts, does he even want to play for England. Five years is a long time. Jack Wilshere’s comments, while somewhat understandable, fail to take into account what is a vastly changing football landscape. The idealistic notion of the 11 best pure bred Englishmen lining up to take on the world can almost be called fantastical. Nowadays, it would be narrow-minded and quite insular not to open up our minds to the possibility or exploring different available options.

When all is said and done, when we come to terms with the fact the tide has long since turned and trying to command the waves is futile, the idea, while not ideal, of a naturalised players might not be the worst idea in the world.

Scroll to top