What does 'English' mean now?

Our Dave Tickner has his say on the escalating row over Jack Wilshere's view of eligibility for the England side.

Last Updated: 11/10/13 at 11:02 Post Comment

Jack Wilshere: Comments caused controversy this week

Jack Wilshere: Comments caused controversy this week

On Saturday evening in Sunderland, an 18-year-old born in Belgium and of Albanian descent scored two fine goals to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory for Manchester United.

There was much marvelling at the eye-catching promise of the precociously talented youngster. The goals, the second in particular, were really very good indeed. Then everything went silly.

It emerged that the FA had tentatively enquired about whether Adnan Januzaj, for it was he, would be interested in playing for England.

This idea was a complete non-starter, for many reasons. Januzaj has no connection to England beyond the fact one of its football clubs pays him money to play for them. He has no English heritage or ancestry.

He arrived in England aged 16, meaning the FA would have to ride roughshod over their own Home Nations Agreement which states that a footballer must spend five years in education in England before the age of 18 in order to qualify.

Even if that was ignored, FIFA requires the five years of residency to begin at 18. So this hugely promising talent would then have to put his international career on hold until 2018, rather than immediately playing for one of the countries he is already eligible to play for.

Then there's the small matter of Januzaj himself who - and this can't be stressed enough - has given absolutely no indication that he has even the slightest interest in playing for England. Why should he?

But Januzaj made the mistake of scoring those two sublime, match-changing goals at the start of the international break. And thus, Januzaj for England became a story, a narrative, in spite of itself.

Smoking's Jack Wilshere was then asked about it in a press conference.

Incredibly, the 21-year-old footballer proved unable to adequately articulate his views on the complex, fluid, nuanced nature of what nationality is in a fast-changing world of ever-increasing mobility, and just what it means to be "English".

But, perhaps relieved not to be facing yet more questions about smoking a cigarette, he unguardedly, honestly answered the question.

"The only people who should play for England are English people," he said.

"If you live in England for five years it doesn't make you English. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I am not going to play for Spain. We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat."

The only really upsetting thing there is the fact that England's most technically-accomplished young footballer still has such a backward view on English football.

But the papers twisted and exaggerated his clumsily-delivered words, filling the vast empty acres of newspaper that stretch out across the football-free desert that is international week with "England is for the English" headlines that painted Wilshere as some sort of right-wing nut.

Wilshere then took to Twitter - perhaps the only arena less suited than press conferences to the meaningful debate of a delicate issue - and made things worse.

Bizarrely, Wilshere claimed he was not talking about Januzaj, apparently in the belief the controversy over his remarks was because they disparaged the Manchester United man.

Wilshere was wrong on both counts. He was talking about Januzaj - the question he answered mentioned the headline-grabbing teenager by name - and clearly that was not the controversy.

But Wilshere's confusion was understandable. Because what he said, clumsily but honestly, was that you should be English to play football for England.

This is correct; it is self-fulfilling. By definition you have to be English to play for England. What is trickier, where the problems start, is the definition of English. Wilshere's only attempt to define it was to say that living in England for five years was not in itself enough.

That's a fair view. Despite what the reporting of Wilshere's words on Wednesday morning would have you believe, Wilshere at no point defined English in its strictest sense: born in England. The papers leapt for that definition, perhaps saying more about them than about him.

It's not stated outright by Wilshere, but, in the absence of any evidence the other way, it's reasonable to assume that his definition of English has, like most people's, some flexibility but just not enough to stretch to a Belgian teenager of Albanian descent who happens to play football there.

The problem is that wherever you decide to define the point that denotes someone's nationality, you are drawing an arbitrary line in the sand based on arbitrary lines on a map.

Wilshere's relatively mundane quotes drew such opprobrium because of the media's crucial twist. Few would argue that restricting people to representing only the country of their birth is reasonable, but everything after that is subjective and up for debate.

It's quite easy to point to Mo Farah, who has a London-born father and came to the England at eight years old to escape civil war in Somalia, and say "English", or Adnan Januzaj and say "not English", but these relatively clear-cut outliers help not a jot when analysing the vast grey area that exists between.

Some have been quick to liken Januzaj's case to the England cricket team's use of South African-born stars like Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior.

Pietersen himself initiated a Twitter Storm by challenging Wilshere on his views. Understandable, but unhelpful.

These are not like-for-like comparisons. Pietersen and co are dual-citizens, with English parentage. One could even argue that the current England cricket team more accurately reflects the ever-changing notion of Englishness by virtue of reflecting what could be but almost never is called the English diaspora in a way the football team does not.

Pietersen, Trott et al have historical connections to England. Those links may have proved fortuitously beneficial and exploited to advance those players' cricket careers, but they exist in a way entirely absent in the case of Januzaj.

Wilshere, or anyone else for that matter, arguing against any attempt to make Januzaj English does not mean that argument extends automatically to the likes of Pietersen or Trott.

Wilshere may not have made the point very well, but he is right to say only the English should play sport for England - otherwise, what's the point? The difficulty is defining what English means in the 21st century. That Januzaj may fall foul of any such definition does not mean the same is true for everyone not born on the correct arbitrary piece of land.

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