Naturalisation issue undermining international football

If the English FA continue to pursue the services of Adnan Januzaj, then we need to have a serious conversation about the purpose of international football.

If the attempt to cultivate a new golden generation of young English players can be marginalised by one impressive performance from a young Belgian Albanian, then why are we wasting our time? 

Why not just scout the world for talented young men we can secure on a technicality? Why not lobby the government for a new, sports-only, fast-track citizenship programme? 

What are we doing messing around with our Playstation-addled, fizzy-drink quaffing children? Why are we indulging their bloated sense of first world entitlement? We can get a squad of scouts down to the Copacabana beach and take our pick of impoverished Brazilian nine-year-olds, trapping them in giant nets and shipping them back to Burton in their hundreds. 

The point of international football, as I always understood it, is for nations to test themselves against other nations. But what are we testing if we’re tripping over ourselves in our attempts to naturalise young foreign kids: Who has the best administrative department? Will England soon attribute their success to the young lad in Human Resources with a gift for genealogy?  

We’ve been on this road for some time. Spain were indebted to the dutiful clattering of Brazilian midfielder Marcus Senna in 2008. An excellent Croatian side was spearheaded by the not-at-all-Croatian striker Eduardo. And of course you have the legendary Alfredo di Stefano, who played for Argentina, Colombia and Spain. It happens all over the world. But that doesn’t make it right. 

No-one is saying that nationality cannot be a fluid concept. Look at Mo Farah, for example. Born in Somalia and only brought to England at the age of 8, no-one can doubt his Britishness. Over at West Bromwich Albion another immigration success story is unfolding with the progress of Burundi-born Saido Berahino. He’ll be playing for England in the next five years. 

These are stories to warm the heart, but it’s when the move is fueled by expediency that it rankles. When a player switches his nationality, not with the intention of representing the country that provided his family with a refuge from war, but for the country most likely to pick him up front. It’s when players in their mid-20s who haven’t made the grade for their own country decided to represent another. FIFA could end this at a stroke by making footballers confirm their ‘nationality’ on their 17th birthday, but you suspect they have other things on their mind at present.

It’s not only players, it’s managers too. I love Sven Goran Eriksson and it is my intention to one day write an award-winning musical about his extraordinary life, but if England had won the 2002 World Cup and the most important person in the set-up was Swedish, would ‘England’ really have won it? Should any nation inside of the FIFA top 50 require the assistance of a foreign coach? 

The standard riposte to this line of thinking is to guffaw and ask if Steve Bruce, currently the highest placed English manager, would be a better England manager than, say, Jurgen Klopp. Of course not. But again, that shouldn’t be the point. It shouldn’t be about assembling the best of the best at all costs, it should be about testing nations against nations.

Now that silly outdated ideas of serving the community have been dispensed with, assembling the best of the best at all costs is the point of club football. If it’s also the point of international football, then we’ve got a problem.

The clubs own the players. The clubs pay the players. The clubs loan the players to international teams because that is the way it has always been, because there is a lingering responsibility to pay tribute to national pride. But if international football isn’t about national pride, if it’s just another strata of avaricious, win-at-all-costs professionalism then why continue to supply it with your resources? 

We’re already at a point where the only emotional involvement of many football fans in international week is simply to pray that their club’s players are not injured. If FIFA continue to allow nations to play fast and loose with the concept of nationality, then it won’t be long before the clubs themselves start to wonder if it’s worth releasing them at all.


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