The debate this week about the potential use of naturalized players of non-English descent in the England national team has flared up once again. For me, it is partly an ugly debate that has elements of xenophobia in it but also a glorious debate demonstrating a nation and people determined to maintain standards of fair play and homogeneity in their football side. English clubs are looking to the continent regularly in this era to replenish their youth ranks, meaning youngsters who are uncapped as internationals at the senior level will be eligible for England duty in some cases by the time they turn 21 under current FIFA statutes.
Meanwhile, the Diego Costa saga roles on with World and European champions Spain proactively trying to improve their side by poaching a player who was capped for Brazil as recently as March. After obtaining Spanish citizenship this summer, Costa and the Spanish Federations have applied for a one-time nationality change. When Costa’s change is approved, this could be a major boost to the dominant team in international soccer who continue to work hard to continue their hegemony over the global game.
Let’s take the fair play argument first. If one believes that national teams in association football should be made up entirely of domestic born players, that is fair. However it’s perhaps an unrealistic argument. England has previously featured John Barnes, who moved to England in his teen years, and Canadian born and raised Owen Hargreaves who had never lived in England when he was first capped in 2001 (he played for FC Bayern at the time). But both had a certain “Englishness” about them critics would argue.
While other nations shamelessly exaggerate ties to players through grandparents, aunts and whatever, England believes in keeping a team full of Englishmen representing England. Winning the World Cup is not worth compromising one’s national identity and ethnic purity. This is what those advocating England stay “English” essentially are saying.
The players that have previously been eligible to be naturalized and play for England through the years have been less English than the likes of Barnes and Hargreaves. For example, when the thought of Mikel Arteta suiting up for the Three Lions was raised in 2010, fans throughout the country were irate saying that it would no longer be an English team if Arteta was capped. As it turned out, Arteta was ineligible for England duty, but the debate over his potential inclusion in the national team crystalized the discussion.
In recent years, notoriously ethno-centric countries (as so characterized by the British press) such as Italy, Poland, Greece and Czech Republic have naturalized and capped foreign players after playing the required number of years in their respective domestic leagues.
England has arguably the best domestic league in the world and yet a large contingent of English fans seems unwilling to take advantage of this. Many foreign players come to the Premier League and, like Arteta, do not feature for the national team of their nation of birth. Yet, while other nations take advantage of the strength of their domestic leagues, in England it is seen as a hindrance to international progress by a large amount of fans.
The United States has been particularly shameless in courting players in recent years that are eligible to play for other nations while a great number of American fans consider those who switched from the US to other nations as “traitors”.
Speaking from an American perspective, having gone from almost a purely “American” team in 2006 to a squad with a number of German-Americans raised in Germany today, the transition can be difficult. But at the same time, the United States has deepened its player pool and made up for the glaring deficiencies in domestic player development (similar problems that England has) by employing this policy. But many here look back at the American teams of the early 1990s and felt the number of naturalized players in that era was more down to being an adolescent in international football and that two decades later the USA would be past this.
But international soccer has changed in the two decades since USA’s CONCACAF Gold Cup triumph in 1991 where many foreign born players featured. Even the top nations such as Spain, Italy, Germany and others are naturalizing players and featuring them at the highest level of international competition.
England on the other hand seems wed to rigid ideology rather than pragmatism. It being a national team, I would leave it to the English to decide how to proceed but it is important to note that unilateral disarmament, which the English attitude amounts to, will make it more and more difficult to replicate the glory of 1966 anytime soon.