Football and fluid identity

by Gerry Farrell

Diego-Costa-Atletico-Madrid-2013_2902425Twitter is a tricky beast to master even for the most verbally concise of individuals, while brevity may be the soul of wit the failures of public figures to get their message across in 140 characters or under, in this most brief of mediums has caused much hilarity, irritation and opprobrium in the seven years since the micro-blogging site first appeared. This is not necessarily to say that a failure to master Twitter is a failure in all cases. Not all subjects of discussion can, or should be reduced to bite-size chunks for public consumption. In the age out of the soundbite it is often refreshing to read a piece of well researched long-form journalism on subjects of importance. This is as true of sport as it is of any other topic.

With this in mind perhaps Jack Wilshere should have paused for a moment to consider his declaration that  “the only people who should play for England are English people” before hitting send, this is not exactly what one might call a nuanced statement. What followed, a row with South African born, England international Cricketer Kevin Pietersen, the name checking of Olympic hero Mo Farah and Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, scorn from Frankie Boyle, opinions on the matter from Roy Hodgson and FA Chairman Greg Dyke was probably all a bit more than Jack expected when he composed his tweet. It does however touch on a topic that is very much in vogue at present, especially so after the decision recently taken by Diego Costa of Atletico Madrid to declare for Spain rather than Brazil, the land of his birth. In reality though it is never a topic far from the agenda in International football, Wilshere’s comments, Costa’s decision and next year’s World Cup only serve in bringing it further to the fore.

What it boils down to is the inherent conflict between the International game, as created in the late 19th Century, forged in, and centred on, the idea of the nation state and the 21st Century globalised world with its fluid sense of identity.  Also at play is the tension between the modern post-Bosman era, hyper-capitalist club game with players moving for vast sums of money, the supposed loss of the one-club man and institutional loyalty. And the International arena where, theoretically at least some vestige of the Corinthian spirit lives on, a game where athletes play for the pride in their nation and the jersey they wear.

The problem is international football was never really like this. Tensions around identity, nationalism and financial reward have existed as long as there has been football played. There are plenty of examples to contradict this idealised image but it still persists to a large extent.  We can go back as far as 1890 for one of the first disputes about nationality; with the case of John “Jack” Reynolds born in Blackburn in 1869 he spent much of his youth in Co. Antrim. While playing for the Belfast club Distillery he made his debut for Ireland and went on to win a further four caps, he scored Ireland’s single goal in their 9-1 defeat to England. However while playing for West Brom and Aston Villa he lined out for the English national team winning eight caps and gaining the dubious honour of being the only man in International football history to have scored both for and against England.

The early decades of football were littered with incidents like this, Italy famously had their Oriundi of the 1930’s that helped them to victory in the 1934 World Cup where the Italian team featured men born in Argentina like Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi who became naturalised Italians. It is a trend that continues in Italy today with players like Thiago Motta (who like Diego Costa had won caps in friendlies for Brazil) and Southampton’s Dani Osvaldo who has six Italian caps to his name despite his familial connection to Italy being an Italian great-grandfather who emigrated to Argentina in the 19th Century. Spain’s naturalisation of players isn’t restricted to just the likes of Costa or Marcus Senna but stretches back to the 50’s and 60’s and featured the likes Hungary’s record goalscorer Ferenc Puskás as well as players like Alfredo di Stefano and László Kubala who had both played for three international teams.

Incidents like this led to a tightening of laws which meant that any player who had played a competitive game for a nation had to remain committed to that nation regardless, however as mentioned this does not apply if a player has only appeared in a friendly which has seen players like Motta, Jermaine Jones and Alex Bruce switch national allegiances in recent years.

What is at the core of the strong reaction to Wilshere’s comments or Costa’s decision is open for debate. For some it is a further example of the footballer as mercenary, willing to play under whatever flag is convenient for the furtherance of their club career and their personal enrichment.  For some it is nostalgia for strong identifiable national styles of play associated with some notion of national values. For some it is simply old-school racism, fear of the Other and the outsider. What matters though are the rules. Generally if you are entitled to a passport for a country (and have not played competitively for someone else) you can play for that nation. There are usually some caveats with this such as a familial connection through a parent or grandparent or a defined period of residence within that country. In some cases FIFA has had to intervene such as attempts by Qatar to naturalise a number of Brazilian footballers, (the Brazilian Ailton was offered $1 million to take Qatari citizenship) but generally this is respected. For example the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) upheld the right enshrined under the Good Friday agreement of 1998 for people born in Northern Ireland to hold a Republic of Ireland passport, this held for footballers too and although born and raised in Northern Ireland a number of players have opted to play for the Republic. If someone can travel under the passport of a nation, can live there, own property there, and partake in the democratic life of a nation who is to say that that person, if talented enough cannot play football for that nation?

To ignore that question is to ignore the mobility and fluidity of identity that exists in the modern world. When Jack Wilshere says that “the only people who should play for England are English people” what idea of Englishness does he have? Bulldogs, bangers and mash, cups o’ tea and Carry On movies? What about the third of Londoners who were born outside of Britain? What about people like Fabrice Muamba, born what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but who arrived in Britain aged 11 without word of English but turned down the chance to play with the Democratic Republic of Congo because he dreamed of playing for his home country, England (which he did at all levels up to under- 21).

Rather than seeing this as a threat perhaps we should look at what having a broader, more inclusive, less fixed approached to nationality has to offer. First of all it offers a more level playing field. Most international nations use naturalised players whether they are Italy, Germany or the Cape Verde Islands. To choose not to select all the potential players available to a national team is to put that team at a disadvantage. Secondly and somewhat personally I look at the role that non-Irish born players have played for the Republic of Ireland and my own ideas of what it means to be Irish. Growing up in Dublin in the 80’s was to part of heterogeneous monoculture, practically every person I knew was white and the vast majority at least titular Catholics. Although this vista changed rapidly as I entered my teens it was the Irish national team that showed me what diversity could mean. Paul McGrath and Chris Hughton were English born, black Irishmen, heroes to the youths who grew up watching Euro 88 and Italia 90. The cockney, scouse or Scottish accents of Townsend, Aldridge or Houghton made us remember and appreciate our diaspora, while we hailed as “Captain Fantastic” Mick McCarthy with his Barnsley burr. Never as a child did I question this, or view them as less Irish than Packie Bonner or Niall Quinn. Those men changed how we viewed Ireland and Irishness, a change I would opine for the better. At a time of vicious sectarian strife and hatred in the country did any football fan care that Alan Kernaghan was an Ulster Protestant? As we become more global, as nation states lose power and perhaps relevance and borders begin to blur there is no true Englishman, or Irishman or German or Spaniard if ever there was such a thing. All that we can ask is that on the pitch at least we play by the rules and expect that those individuals who wear our country colours represent us to the best of their abilities wherever their city of birth might be. It’s a sentiment I hope I’ve communicated well , that I’ve explored the nuances of history and identity and it’s probably a little too broad a topic for 140 characters, eh Jack?

1 Response

  1. Aontroim Abu says:

    Good article, but I would take issue with one sentence “the right enshrined under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 for people born in Northern Ireland to hold a Republic of Ireland passport”. First of all there is no Republic of Ireland passport, just an Irish passport and secondly Irish people living in the north could always have an Irish passport. Sorry to nitpick but it jars with me when I’m told, as an Irish person, that it takes a British Act of Parliament (The Northern Ireland Act 1998, which brought the Good Friday agreement into force) to allow me to be Irish.

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