Whenever a Scotland international squad is announced there is always one debate that inevitably resurfaces: that regarding the correctness of calling up so-called “English players”.
It seems that with almost every new squad there is another English-born player called up by Scotland, and so the usual, predictable question is asked – would he prefer to be playing for England?
It is a perfectly valid question, although it is unfair to single out any individual player; national identity is a deeply personal matter and cannot be objectively quantified.
The general discussion, however, is one worth having. After all, is there really any point to international football if players are representing a country other than their own?
Of course, many players do have genuine ties to more than one country and some may feel equal attachment to them and perhaps even carry dual citizenship as a point of principle.
Nationality is not solely about where a person was born or what passport they possess, there can be many factors, but ultimately it is about choice and personal feeling.
There are plenty of examples, however, of players who could be seen to be settling for representing one team after conceding that they are not good enough to play for another. Just look at the number of Brazilian-born players that represent European nations.
In a Scottish context, some players, such as James Morrison and Oliver Burke, have been honest enough to admit that pragmatism played a huge part in their decision.
The former was capped by England at various youth levels and said of his Scotland call-up,
I was born in England and I believe I could do a job for them, but it was a question of how long I wanted to wait.
His candour should be applauded, but he evidently wanted to play for England and if so, why should he be able to play for another national team? Why should he deprive someone else of the opportunity, someone whose lifelong, burning desire has been to represent his country?
It could easily be seen as insulting to Scotland supporters to have their team viewed as a reluctantly accepted back-up.
Morrison’s effort in a Scotland shirt cannot be faulted, but so what? He’s a professional and surely any footballer would give their all no matter what colours they wear, but there’s more to international football than that.
Burke, for his part, admitted:
I can play for both England and Scotland but I feel like I have more chances with Scotland.
At least the 18-year-old Nottingham Forest winger has made the decision at a young enough age that he can’t really be accused of waiting on an England call before deciding he is Scottish, but, again, he could be seen as an example of someone choosing Scotland for the greater opportunity rather than out of a greater passion.
The story of Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie is an interesting one. The midfielder had never even been to the land of his father’s birth before making his national team debut as a 25-year-old at Hampden last year.
As a professional footballer I’m sure he could have easily found the cash for an EasyJet flight to Edinburgh or Glasgow for a weekend in the off-season if he’d ever had the slightest interest in “his” country. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but it cannot be denied that it looks bad.
Many Scotland internationals have represented England at youth level, but one who went a step further was Nigel Quashie who played a B international for England before going on to win fourteen caps for Scotland. Prior to switching allegiance he said:
I’d never given up hope of forcing my way into the full England set-up but I would consider playing for Scotland.
Dominic Matteo, capped six times by Scotland between 2000 and 2002, likewise appeared for England at U21 and B level and was even called up to senior squads. He was never capped, however, so switched to play for Scotland, where he was actually born and spent his early years.
George Boyd, curiously, turned out on a number of occasions for England C before switching allegiance to Scotland to play in a B game aged 23. He, like Ritchie, had never been to Scotland before that game.
He went on to pick up two senior caps, the first of them four years later. On being asked to play for Scotland he said:
Any international recognition is great…I think (playing for) England is a bit far-fetched, so this is a great opportunity for me.
Some would argue that appearing in a B international is a significant commitment to a country, others would say that so too is accepting U21 call-ups. Where we draw the line in terms of when a player can still switch nationality is an important facet of the debate on international football.
Players waiting for a chance with their preferred option before perhaps settling for another is not something that should be encouraged or something that does anything for the integrity and authenticity of the international game.
In the two squads named by Gordon Strachan for Scotland’s friendlies against the Czech Republic and Denmark there are eight players who were born in England, two of whom represented their birth country at youth level.
It shouldn’t for a moment be suggested that on that basis alone none of these players should be in the squads, but the figures are an indicator that we are not talking about isolated instances every now and again.
When you add in other players capped in recent years but not in these most recent squads, Scotland could probably field an all-English-born team. It is inevitable that questions will be asked of the “Scottishness” of some of these players and of their true commitment to playing for Scotland ahead of the land of their birth.
What I would argue for is not the outright prevention of these players competing in a dark blue jersey, but rather some sort of mechanism that would allow for greater transparency, integrity and trust in international football, but more on that later.
It is worth acknowledging that the situation of Anglo-Scots is an almost unique one in world football in that we are talking about two bordering footballing nations, historic rivals, one much larger and more successful than the other, but both within the one state and using the same passports.
Many – perhaps most – national teams exploit eligibility rules to some degree, but it is much simpler for English-born footballers to represent Scotland than it is for, say, a Brazilian to represent Croatia, because they don’t even need to change their legal nationality, just their FIFA one.
They don’t need a new passport, they don’t have to travel very far or learn a new language. It’s as convenient as can be.
There is also the fact that there is naturally a lot of migration between the two nations. Many, many people born in England have Scottish parents or grandparents.
Consequently, many English-born footballers are eligible to play for Scotland and, due to the higher standard of the English national team, it must be very tempting to look at the Scotland squad as a more realistic opportunity to gain international recognition. Throw in the fact that it’s so easily done and why not give it a go?
It doesn’t happen the other way around because any Scottish player good enough and eligible to play for England would already be playing for Scotland if they wanted to be. England as, in global terms, one of the better footballing nations, doesn’t face this issue.
One would be hard pressed to think of a player who might be regarded as having settled for England rather than playing for their first choice. It will, in all probability, never happen that someone wanting to play for Scotland has to settle for England.
As alluded to earlier, a player being born in England (or any another country) should, of course, on no account necessarily and automatically preclude them from playing for Scotland. Steven Fletcher and Jordan Rhodes were born in England but raised in Scotland and there never seemed to be any doubt that Scotland was their first choice.
Richard Gough was born in Sweden and raised in South Africa, but his Scottish father ensured he always supported Scotland.
Shaun Maloney was born in Malaysia and was eligible for England and Wales as well, but after growing up in Aberdeen and coming through Celtic’s academy, there was no question for him either, even though England did show some interest at one time.
Sven Goran Eriksson and other representatives of the English FA made overtures to the player, his parents and agent when he was an 18-year-old, but his appraisal of the situation at the time was, “it was flattering but I would never have done it”.
His was a laudable and mature response from one so young, but I don’t think it’s surprising. As a young person, you know what national team you want to play for, the one you’ve grown up supporting.
I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ask all young footballers to declare their permanent FIFA nationality when they sign their first professional contract. That would be from age sixteen in Scotland and age seventeen in England.
This simple measure would avoid accusations of players waiting and settling. It might not totally eliminate pragmatism coming into the equation, but with no prospect of switching down the line, players would take the decision seriously and that would go a long way to restoring some integrity to international football.
Undeniably, the choice might be a difficult one for some players. As stated earlier, some people genuinely feel equal attachment to more than one country, but most young footballers will know in their hearts what national team they dream of representing, and if the price to pay for stricter eligibility rules is a few tough decisions then it’s one worth paying. At sixteen or seventeen a person is old and mature enough to be able to declare their nationality.
These rules shouldn’t restrict players’ choices – within reason – just encourage those players to make that choice once and to give it due consideration. I am not opposed to parent, grandparent or even residency rules in international eligibility, all I want to see is players representing their first choice, representing what they truly consider to be their country.
The cornerstone of international football must be national identity – I don’t think that’s a radical notion.
Unlike many Scotland fans, I fully respect the decisions of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy to represent Ireland. If they grew up supporting Ireland and feel Irish before Scottish then that is what they feel and it must be respected. They made their decisions young and would most likely still be playing for Ireland had the measure I propose been in place back then.
Of course implementing this rule change would require some level of international support, which might not be so straightforward to attain, but there are certainly some good arguments for it. In an age where the millions of club football hold sway, it is important that international football retains its integrity if it wishes to retain its value and prestige.
For the time being, it would be a positive development to see the British and Irish associations implement my suggested rule on a local level. All players with British or Irish passports signing their first professional contract in the UK or Republic of Ireland would declare their international affiliation, whether to a British or Irish association or otherwise. The relevant football association would be duly notified and maintain a database of eligible players.
This would also ideally eliminate the need to scout and research players that might potentially be eligible. The Scottish FA should not be approaching English youngsters and telling them about their Scottish grandparent in an attempt to recruit them.
When things like that are going on, international football becomes like club football and then what’s the point?
Many people blame the SFA for letting McGeady and McCarthy get away, for not being proactive enough, for ignoring them or failing to notice them until it was too late. Well, my proposal would solve situations like that.
You cannot be unaware of a player if he has declared for your association when he signed pro terms and you cannot lose a player to another country if he was never yours to lose and switching is not allowed. Let the associations worry about watching their pool of players rather than trying to add to it.
While he was manager of Portugal, Paulo Bento had an admirable stance on the issue of player eligibility. He always maintained that he would never ask or attempt to persuade a player to switch allegiance, but if a foreign-born player of his own accord declared for Portugal then he would consider them like any other Portuguese player. That is, essentially, how international football should work.
Admittedly, I would like to take it further than Bento by requiring this declaration at a young age, but it would be a great start if more national team managers adopted his position.
In any case, the onus should always be on the player to declare rather than the football association to recruit; however, without a worldwide rule change or at least bilateral or multilateral agreements between countries with close ties, that will be hard to achieve.
Perhaps it could begin with players taking more responsibility, because as long as it remains the case that players wait for invitations and delay decision making in order to evaluate all avenues, there will remain unavoidable suspicion that certain players are not following their heart and are taking advantage of eligibility rules to play international football for a country other than their own.
Players might think they are being smart and patient, but it’s disrespectful to fans. They might want to play for the team that makes them feel most wanted, but that’s not how international football should work, that’s not how national identity works. In club football you have choices, you make compromises, you can be bought and sold, but international football should exist on a purer plane.
As mentioned at the top of the article, nationality cannot be proved or quantified, so in order to rebuild trust in international football we need either a culture change or a rule change.
As a Scotland fan, I don’t much care if a Scotland international was born in Scotland or has any Scottish family, all that matters is that they feel Scottish before anything else, grew up supporting Scotland and want to play for Scotland ahead of any other country.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask and I don’t think it’s overly cynical to suggest the current system struggles to provide that guarantee.