Following Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere’s remarks on national eligibility during his England press conference on Tuesday pundits and fans alike queried whether he was right to say that only those born in England should be able to represent the country on the football pitch. An honest and upfront answer to a question, a rarity from the modern professional sportsman, sparked hot debate and things became even more heated when South African born England cricketer Kevin Pietersen waded into the row on Twitter. So was Wilshere out of line with his original remark? And what should happen to the player who initiated this whole episode, Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj?
Janazuj was almost completely unknown among football fans until his two goals on Sunday helped the Red Devils reverse a 1-0 deficit against Sunderland, who are currently bottom of the Premier League. Initially his performance led to articles being written about how the 18 year-old had spared manager David Moyes’ blushes in addition to journalists pondering what would happen to the Belgian born youngster when his contract expires at the end of this season. However once it was revealed that Januzaj had yet to be capped at any level internationally questions over his international future were asked, including the possibility of him gaining British citizenship and playing for England. The other nations Januzaj is eligible to represent include Serbia, Albania, Turkey and his place of birth, Belgium.
One of the sticking points with regards to Januzaj’s situation is that he won’t be eligible to be selected by England, should they be his choice, until he turns 23 in 2018. In footballing terms that is a fairly advanced age to make your international debut – especially if you’re as talented as many believe Januzaj to be. Wayne Rooney made his England debut at 16. Jack Wilshere was just 18 when he made his senior international bow. Theo Walcott was also 16. While these players are exceptions rather than the rule I’d more readily associate Januzaj with these names than the likes of older England debutantes such as Ricky Lambert. Football is increasingly becoming a young mans game, best shown by the fact that at just 24 Gareth Bale recently became the most expensive player in the history of the sport. Obviously after just one start it’s far too early to tell if Januzaj is even of the caliber required to represent England. He may turn out to be a one hit wonder in the mould of Federico Macheda, who scored twice in his first two Manchester United games before fading into obscurity. But should he fulfill his potential and warrant selection at the highest level then it’s highly doubtful he’d want to wait until 2018 to take that step, by which time he could’ve represented Belgium in two World Cups and a European Championship. While appearing for a minnow like Albania probably doesn’t appeal to Januzaj the likes of Turkey, Serbia and Belgium are all competitive when it comes to qualifying for major tournaments and as a result I’d be surprised if he did consider the English route to international football. The fact he has no English heritage, not even a grandparent, would make that decision even more surprising due to his lack of family ties to the country.
Moving away from the Januzaj case specifically, was Wilshere right in broader terms to say that only English people should play for England? It’s a sensitive subject, but I’m inclined to agree with 21 year-old for the most part. While Kevin Pietersen brought up examples of foreign-born athletes who have represented England or Great Britain in international competition he was unable to mention any footballers as part of his argument. Yes Mo Farah was born outside of Britain, but he’s lived in England since the age of eight and his father is British born. In contrast Januzaj only moved to Britain when he was 16, purely for footballing reasons, and has no British relatives. Another aspect of this comparison is that football is the quintessential team sport. When playing for your country you’re alongside ten other players who you rely on to help build a combined unit stronger than the opposition. Conversely, long distance running is about as isolated and individual a sport as you can get. While Farah competed as part of Team GB at the Olympic games in London last year he wasn’t reliant on the performances of Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins to help him win gold in the 10,000 metres. His success was entirely down to him whereas one great footballer cannot win a game on his own, as the likes of George Best found out when he represented Northern Ireland.
Pietersen himself is a more relevant comparison to Januzaj. But before you compare the two, you have to forget about all of KP’s achievements in cricket. This is not a question of ability and selective citizenship. The guidelines for being British or English are universal, regardless of ability. Pietersen is a better player than fellow South African born England international Craig Kieswetter. But that is beside the point. They both qualified to play for England under the same criteria, as did Jonathan Trott. If they weren’t good enough they would never have been selected to play for England to begin with, the same way that if Januzaj’s career falters he won’t be picked by England nor Belgium. However while Pietersen and Januzaj’s careers share certain parallels their respective sports attitudes towards foreign-born players could not be more different. According to Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph 96.8% of English international footballers have been born in the England. This is significantly higher than the same statistic for English cricket, which reads a paltry 62.5%. Part of this discrepancy can be explained by the lack of nations who can compete at the top-level in cricket. There are only ten countries who are eligible to play test matches, which often leads to those born outside of those ten nations seeking citizenship inside one. Some recent examples of this are Irish duo Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin, who having played one day cricket for Ireland then sought to further their careers by ‘transferring’ to England in search of test match status. In comparison, even a relatively minor footballing country such as Wales (who haven’t competed in a World Cup since 1958) still enter at the qualification stage for every major international tournament that a giant like Spain are. This has enabled the likes of Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale to play for their country of birth and still go toe to toe with the likes Germany, France and Italy in full internationals on a regular basis.
In conclusion, I believe that Wilshere deserves credit for fronting up and expressing his opinion. He may not have phrased his answer as well as he may have liked, but he was asked a question and he answered it in an honest fashion. I’d prefer to commend him for not shirking the issue by reeling off some oft used cliché, but unfortunately the mainstream media has instead targeted him and questioned his morals on the issue. Pietersen, a figure who has always divided opinion, clearly felt irked at Wilshere’s stance. It did after all seem to take direct aim at the likes of himself and Jonathan Trott. However when confronted by KP on twitter yesterday Wilshere made it perfectly clear that he was referring to the England football team, and that he had nothing to say about other sports as it was not his place to comment. Cricket long has a history of players playing for two or even three countries (Keppler Wessels represented South Africa, Australia and England in test cricket). Alan Lamb nor Robin Smith were born in England and bore heavy South African accents. But that’s an accepted aspect of a sport where entry to competition at the top-level is so exclusive. Football is different. As is athletics. FIFA recognises 209 countries who are able to play international football. 204 nations took part in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Cricket isolates itself and restricts the amount of potential participants by allowing just ten countries to play against each other in tests. There is no right and wrong answer on the subject, it’s more complicated than that and each case of citizenship should be looked at individually. You can’t compare Mo Farah to Januzaj. And you can’t compare Januzaj to Kevin Pietersen. Unfortunately the latter seems determined to do just that.