England – Half English?

by Charles Pulling

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 14.40.52This week Arsenal and England midfielder and all around English bulldog Jack Wilshere deftly deflected the furore of him being snapped outside a London nightclub with a fag on by creating furore #2 (The Reckoning). He did so by opening Pandora’s box, slipping one of his comprehensively tattoo’d arms within, pulling out a can labelled ‘Worms’ and proceeded to sling the contents of said can all around Arsenal’s occupied press room.

And now, with a satisfied look grin on his quintessentially English face, master Wilshere can lean back and survey a job well done as the nations media run around aimlessly and rub various religious trinkets in search for an answer to the question: What makes an Englishman English?

One has to stop and wonder if a whole lotta hang-wringing could have been saved on the press’ behalf if they’d stopped and pondered the context of Jack Wilshere’s comments. In fairness to the young lad he actually gave the media the answer they were searching for later on- in so far that he actually, with Oxford Concise-esque accuracy, defined an Englishman:

We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat.

Thank goodness for young Wilshere and his definition, saving the aimless hoards of men wandering the green and pleasant land with not a notion of who they are or what they should be doing. Meanwhile, over at the F.A’s center for footballing excellence all the technique coaches – you know the ones who teach kids passing, control, skill –  are clearing out their lockers knowing full well the battle is lost.

Whilst skulking around Twitter, like a world weary Vietnam vet, viewing from afar as various pundits and England cricketers ‘waded in’ to give their opinion I remained fully committed to not caring about the ‘debate’ raging. But then as I imbibed a rather delicious glass of red wine – Jacobs Creek 2010 Merlot  since you asked – my synapses started flickering. Much in the style of Carrie Bradshaw from ‘Sex in the city’ I got to thinking, and through a loosely connected series of thoughts believe what those in the trade term an ‘opinion’.

In the week following the finale of ‘Breaking Bad’ those who have been giving away spoilers have been persona non grata on the internet, yet with that in mind I believe it my duty to give one away to you the reader – Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj will never play for England. He is, of course, what inspired Jack Wilshere was letting his thoughts get ahead of him. Yet even if he could play for England – As things stand he can’t – he wouldn’t choose to pull on the three lions any time soon – he wants to play for Kosovo, and is seemingly willing to wait for FIFA recognition for the fledgling nation.

The debate that has evolved from a rather ludicrous and false hypothetical is one strangely high-brow for football, a question of nation and nationality. An equally pointless debate. That may seem a tad churlish on my behalf but this writer already knows the answer to the question, a fact in no part due to any extra intelligence or extra nuance brought on by 2010 Merlots. It is just simply that I have a reasonably good memory, and armed with that I can recall the 2006 world cup. Whilst England’s participation in the tournament was regarded as somewhat of a failure, ultimately proving the end of  Sven-Göran Eriksson’s reign as coach and a hat full of questions on the future certain international mainstays, one positive garnered from the tournament were the performances of Owen Hargreaves.

The tireless midfielder/emergency right-back came back from Germany with his stock risen – perhaps saying more about the insular nature of the British mainstream press, by 27 he had one four Bundesliga titles and the UEFA Champions League with Bayern Munich – and talk of a move to the Premier League was abound. One talking point that was seemingly forgotten was the issue of the young mans nationality – or to put it more acutely his ‘Englishness’. English fans both at home and within the World Cup stadia had no issue cheering on an England player who happened to be born in Canada and spend from his latter teenage years onward in Germany. It seems that success is the great cleanser which washes away questions over identity.

This rings true of probably the most famous case of “pick n’ mix” national identity – the 1994 Irish World Cup squad. Of the 22 man squad Jack Charlton cobbled together to complete in the USA 15 of those were born outside of the Republic. A master-stoke in administration and creativity the squad did draw cat calls of derision from abroad, mockingly dubbed the ‘England B-team’ by certain outlets. Yet I doubt the Caledonian nature of Ray Houghton’s birth mattered very much to Ireland fans in Giants Stadium NY or those watching around the world when his shot lofted over Gianluca Pagliuca and nestled into the Italian’s net. To the fans of the nation’s football team birth heritage matters as little as club loyalty so long as the performance in the national shirt is acceptable.

Outside of football the same mentality can be seen in other sports. Probably the most iconic image of Britain’s success at the 2012 Olympics is that of Mo Farah as he crosses the line to take the 10,000m gold medal, his face a mixture of disbelief and ecstasy. Was the cacophony of sound within the Olympic stadium as the victorious ‘Mo-bot’ went up on the big screen dulled by the fact Farrah was born in Somalia? I doubt so. Even in track and field ,where the majority of events are individual, it seemingly matter little to those watching where someone was born so much as who they are representing.

Footballers, current or retired, are not known for their way with words; this is not their fault they are ,at the end of the day, athletes not academics. So one must not express too much shock when a footballer’s ill thought out views on a subject they are not well versed in create controversy. Jack Wilshere’s may have been heartfelt – I’m in no doubt he believes that he knows with full certainty what being English entails. But that does not mean he is right. A look at the current England U-21 squad contains three players – Raheem Sterling, Wilfred Zaha and Saido Berahino – who were not born in England. To my mind this does not make them illegitimate or less worthy of donning the England shirt. If anything in my opinion it makes them more legitimate – they have chosen to represent England rather than have it decided for them by the genetic lottery.

Jack Wilshere would do well to read into the history of the country the espouses love for so much. It is not so much the ‘Bulldog’ nation as the ‘mongrel’ nation – a country built on immigration and multi-culturalism. If English football were to embrace that further perhaps the national team could move on from the ‘bulldog spirit’ to a winning mentality.

Author Info

Charles Pulling

Charles Pulling

Completist + Flâneur. Co-Editor of @bpfootball. Content for: @inbedwimaradona @sabotagetimes + Others. Featured on http://WorldSoccer.com

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