Friday 1 May ~
Following Wednesday's Champions League games there was such a flurry of positive coverage about Arsenal that you would be forgiven for thinking they had beaten Man Utd. What they did do was restrain Alex Ferguson's team to scoring only one goal, mostly due to a series of outstanding saves made by Manuel Almunia. This performance has reignited a debate that feeds two of England's greatest national psychoses: immigration and the national team's goalkeeper.
On July 14 Almunia will have been at Arsenal for five years, making him eligible for a British passport and selection for a national football team. The player has said before that he would consider playing for England. At the moment however he is remaining fairly coy: "Maybe I will get a passport, then after, if I get the call-up, I will think about this." This morning it was reported that Fabio Capello would consider picking the Arsenal goalkeeper if he were eligible.
But while player and manager leave the decision to each other, the English national goalkeeper situation is causing as much worry as ever. Several hopefuls have come and gone. Younger players are regarded as not yet ready – Joe Hart has not been helped by Shay Given's arrival at Eastlands; current incumbent David James is approaching 40. So a regular goalkeeper for a top-four Premier League team with the possibility of a British passport is causing much soul-searching.
It is a fairly new situation for England. The other home nations have often used the cases of grandparent lineage to call up players for the national squad. This has not always been simple. Tony Cascarino found out 11 years after his Ireland debut there was no actual blood relation to his Irish grandfather, and in his autobiography he stated: "I didn't qualify for Ireland. I was a fraud. A fake Irishman." Until now there has been a rather arrogant English presumption that “this sort of thing" is for smaller countries only.
The other difference in Almunia's case, of course, is that the claim of nationality is based on citizenship rather than heritage, however dubious. This is not a new idea at FA level. According to former FA chief executive David Davies “very serious consideration” was given to Sven Göran-Eriksson's plan of looking into switching the nationality of four Premier League players (Carlo Cudicini, Louis Saha, Steed Malbranque and Edu) in order to play for England in 2004. This went no further following concerns expressed by goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence.
Yet with Almunia's Wednesday performance still fresh in the collective memory the debate has reappeared. Today in the Sun, Harry Redknapp stated that: "If it came to a choice between England winning the World Cup with a Spanish keeper or not winning it, I’d rather not win." But Redknapp goes on to say: "You’re English if you were born here or your mum and dad were born here. In that case, I don’t care if your family comes from India, Australia, Pakistan or Jamaica — you’re English in my mind." Moving swiftly on from the slightly dubious colonial basis of Redknapp's argument, this is all very simple as long as the "birth" rule is applied. But how long will it be before desperation kicks in?