Why It’s Time For England To Accept Change And Begin Naturalizing Footballers
Adnan Januzaj is the latest youth sensation to sweep the Premier League, and his two goals against Sunderland made everyone take notice, even the English FA. They have been in contact with David Moyes about Januzaj’s potential eligibility when he qualifies for residency in 2 years. However, he’s not going to play for England.
Jack Wilshere, established England international that he is, doesn’t seem to be too keen. He said this about Januzaj possibly playing for England:
“For me, if you are English, you are English and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for 5 years, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play.”
He immediately received blowback for those comments, but that’s not where the story is. The story lies in the many cases of dual-nationality taking over world soccer, and blurring what were clear international lines. Your humble scribe is no anthropologist, but being English can mean a lot of things. Being American can mean a lot of things. Even being Chinese can mean tons of things. Even with little indication that Januzaj has even thought about playing for England, this has boiled into a national debate. So, does playing for a national team these days need to retain the qualifiers of “being born in the country” and/or “being reared in the country”? Or, “So what if Adnan Januzaj sings God Save the Queen?”
As a United States National Team fan, this question has been around ever since the Yanks returned to prominence, but has become even more important to us recently. Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Terrence Boyd, John Brooks, and recently Aron Johannsson are all dual-nationals that have chosen to play for the US over either Germany or Iceland, despite limited interactions with the country growing up. The first 5 players are all sons of German mothers and (black) American servicemen, who spent the majority of their lives growing up in Germany. Does that make them any less American than Clint Dempsey, who grew up in Texas, or Michael Bradley, who grew up in an American soccer family? Nope. Even Aron Johannsson, who is the son of Icelandic parents but born in Alabama and played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton for a few years, can claim to be American under FIFA rules. Is he any less American than Tim Howard? (Hint: No, since his nickname is Aron Bacon, and how can you get more American than that?) Dual-nationals are just part of the modern game of soccer, especially with the media available to look into player heritages with a bigger microscope.
These stories are not exclusive to just the United States. Germany has players like Ilkay Gundogan on their squad, who was the son of Turkish immigrants but born in Germany. He could have played for either of the two nations but chose to play for Germany. Does that make him instantly not Turkish? No. Nuri Sahin, he of similar background, decided to play for Turkey. This has become a commonality of life in countries like Germany, Belgium, the United States, even Canada, where immigrants form a part of the soccer playing base. Even Italy has played Argentines as part of the Azzurri such as Pablo Osvaldo, and Spain is currently in the process of calling up Brazilian born Diego Costa. So even countries with such national pride and renowned youth development as Italy and Spain are willing to call up dual-nationals if they qualify, and why shouldn’t they? It’s not an indictment of their youth system to call up players like this if they feel compelled to, and it doesn’t (usually) make them seem desperate. It means they are exploring all possible options, and every country needs to do that in order to be the best. And no England, you’re not out of the woods on this.
English football has many instances of this that go unnoticed. Say if a player was born in Lancashire but was born to Scottish parents, he could choose to play for either Scotland or England. Imagine if this player was very talented, and had to make a very difficult and public choice on what nation’s colors to put on. If he decided to represent Scotland, would that make him any less English? On Wikipedia, it might say “Scottish”, but he was still born and bred in England, which technically makes him English. Maybe this situation is different because of FIFA breaking down the United Kingdom into the four home nations for international purposes, but the decision is still the same one that many young professionals are making to this day. The most famous example in US Soccer is Giuseppe Rossi, who was born in Teaneck, NJ to Italian parents. He decided to play for Italy based on his heritage, but he was still born in New Jersey. He’s still American. Lewis Holtby was born and raised in Germany, but his father was an RAF officer. Does that mean the English lineage of his family is instantly erased because he wears German colors instead of the Three Lions? No, it just means he’s chosen to play for the country of his birth over (one) of the countries of his heritage. Would England fans be upset if Holtby decided to play for England? I hope not.
Even naturalized players can become important parts of national teams, and just ask Mexico. Recently, players like Chaco Gimenez, Damian Alvarez, and Lucas Lobos have all put on the kit for El Tri, despite being born in Argentina. They have met residency requirements, and have subsequently been called up to Mexico duty. Are they any less Argentine because they qualify to play for Mexico, and have decided to do it? No. Mexican fans have protested, but have recently backed off, because they too realize it’s a reality of modern football that situations like this exist.
More dual-national questions will be asked in the years to come everywhere in the world, so when someone who has no/few ties to the country but meets residency requirements and has decided to play for said country, it doesn’t mean the FA is desperate for recruiting him or youth development. It just means your country has an appeal that the others don’t. And that should fuel your national pride more than Jack Wilshere saying “if he’s not English, he shouldn’t play for England” ever will.
The reality is that England needs to change with the times. Otherwise, the national team is going to fall further behind in the race for world soccer supremacy. If England doesn’t adapt, and if Englanders don’t support the FA in doing so, England will be left behind. England’s FA needs to be more aggressive in finding and convincing young talent with either residency or ancestral ties to England to play for the national team. All of the major soccer nations are doing it, and while most people in England seem to disagree with the notion, it’s time for England and its citizens to accept change. Otherwise England’s consistency of reaching quarter-finals of major tournaments will quickly become out of reach.