England's Soldiers of Fortune

Alex Livesey

Carl Jenkinson, Wilfried Zaha and Raheem Sterling are all in the England squad to face Sweden. They are also eligible for other nations. Is international football still a tenable concept?

In April 2011, the French news outlet Mediapart released a story, which quickly became a controversy, claiming that the French Football Federation was considering the implementation of a quota system. Mediapart had, somehow, got hold of a recording which represented the FFF -- including, most sensationally, then manager Laurent Blanc -- to be considering a limit on the numbers of dual-nationality players admitted to their youth academies. The story, even if the plans were never realized (and Blanc was cleared, by a swiftly-convened enquiry, of any wrongdoing), caused a quantity of self-analysis in ethnically diverse France. But the analysis need not be confined to the 1998 World Cup winners; every developed modern nation has, by the nature of development, of modernity, a quantity of players qualified to represent nations of birth as well those of upbringing and/or lineage. England, as its current squad testifies, is no different.

Roy Hodgson travels to Sweden for the inaugural match at Sweden's (characteristically delightfully named) Friends Arena, with a squad containing three players -- Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson, Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and CrystalPalace's Wilfried Zaha -- whose international careers are still up for grabs. Currently eligible, too, for Finland, Jamaica and Ivory Coast respectively, the three youngsters will remain so even if they pull on the three lions (passant guardant, Latin fans) for the first time on Wednesday thanks to an eccentric FIFA ruling which counts friendlies as caps but not binding ones.

That situation, as with the controversy in France, shows up a difficulty with national identity with which the demands of FIFA doctrine are ill equipped to deal. This is not, for once, entirely FIFA's fault: nationality is a vexed issue and becoming increasingly so. It has become twee to describe football as a global game; but so it is. English football is cosmopolitan, but so is England.

That is a good thing, but it is also a problem.

Without wanting to get too uppity, here's the Oxford English Dictionary:

cosmopolitan, adj. and n. 1. Belonging to all parts of the world; not restricted to any one country.

And therein lies the difficulty for international football, which is nothing more than groups of individuals belonging to one country competing against another block of same from other, both sets of individuals restricted to their one country. It looks, in that light, oxymoronic doesn't it? Perhaps even archaic.

Strangely, though, it's not archaic -- or not, at least, in FIFA-Land.

Back in the day it was, if not common, at least possible to change national affiliation. In fact, there are a few high profile examples: Alfredo di Stefano has 6 Argentina, 4 Colombia and 31 Spain caps; Ferenҫ Puskas has 85 for Hungary and 4 for Spain; Jock Aird has 4 Scotland caps vying for space in his cabinet with the 2 he was awarded by New Zealand (the lesser-known Jose Altafini played for Brazil in the '58 World Cup and Italy in '62). Alongside them, there is a huge list of players with caps for the USSR and then for their new nation, for East or West Germany and then for the united nation, for Yugoslavia and then for the independent states born of its breakup, for South Sudan. And these examples illustrate an important point: national boundaries are not fixed. They exist, as humans do, in a state of perpetual flux, sensitive to political and natural upheaval. Football, as a global game, needs must reflect that fluidity which is, as I've said, a good thing.

While we, don't, of course wish for a situation where we have super-nations as well as super-clubs, where Eden Hazard can "sign" for England or Qatar can helpSpain out of its fiscal difficulties by buying its World Cup XI, fixing a player's international affiliation on the basis of odd, teenage appearances is hardly less arbitrary. The current situation resembles that of club football in that the more illustrious nations are encouraged to gamble on young talent; tempting them with their heritage and the potential they offer for mass-endorsement. That is not an ideal situation either. Should Jenkinson (who has, incidentally, crammed half a decade's worth of pubescence into six months), not quite work out as an Arsenal and England full-back, he'll languish on one or two caps for the rest of his career another Franny Jeffers or Steve Guppy. And no one wants that.

So why do players have to nail a particular flag to their mast while still so young? There isn't really a satisfactory answer (except that it prevents the pious trend for non-celebration from poisoning international football too) but the three soldiers of fortune inEngland's latest squad show up the difficulties of the question. Maybe players should be allowed to freely change affiliation. Maybe international football is redundant. Maybe Carl Jenkinson will be confined to one international cap.

None of these are desirable outcomes but they seem to be the only possible ones, unless we allow negatively discriminating quota systems -- which make it harder for players with dual affiliations to rise to prominence. We won't, of course, and we shouldn't but you can see why the issue would come up. The notion of nationality, today, just can't be fixed -- not even by FIFA.

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