An increasing number of players are now eligible to play for several different countries, causing a dilemma when choosing who to represent
14 December ~ Next spring sees the birth of my first child. As a parent-to-be, the impending new arrival raises a number of questions. One of which is, if they’re any good at football, which country will they represent? In the unlikely event I raise an international footballer, my child has the luxury of five potential nations from which to choose. Through my side of the family, they’ll be eligible for England, Wales and Scotland, while my wife is Italian-Australian. If this sounds a tad extreme, at a recent parenting class I attended one new baby would be eligible for Australia, Portugal and the Czech Republic, while another would have the luxury of choosing from Australia, Germany, the US and Macedonia.
The parenting group snapshot is reflective of just how common multi-nationalities are in Australia, a country built on immigration, especially from eastern Europe. At the 2006 World Cup, when the Socceroos took on Croatia, 20 per cent of players on the pitch were eligible for both teams, while current national team coach Ange Postecoglou’s Greek roots are rarely mentioned.
But in England the same debate has rarely reached such levels of understanding. The same year the Socceroos were taking on Croatia, Owen Hargreaves was subjected to a stream of often quite personal criticism from the tabloid press for the crime of being picked for England having never played in the country. Tabloid xenophobia got another airing in 2013 with Jack Wilshire’s comments that “the only people who should play for England are English people”.
Yet by that criteria, Jamaican-born John Barnes would have never played for England although the latter could claim a World Cup-winner in Ashton-under-Lyme’s Simone Perrotta. And you suspect few would have objected if the half-English Kevin de Bruyne had opted for his mother’s homeland over Belgium.
The examples of Barnes and Perrotta show how hard it is to fully enforce the idea of outright nationality onto a team, with dual or multiple nationality increasingly common. This has a knock-on effect that any half-decent top-flight player is pressured to pick a country as soon as possible. In the case of Wilshere, his comments were in response to rumours that England would attempt to naturalise Adnan Januzaj, who was already eligible for Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and Belgium. Januzaj himself had stated a preference for Albania although was eventually persuaded to declare for Belgium after a very public courtship by the national team. His last international call-up came for a European qualifier in 2015.
The mercurial winger is one of a number of players who may have been national team regulars had they declared for another team. Arsenal right-back Carl Jenkinson was part of the Finland Under-21s set-up but opted for England at senior level. To date, he has made one appearance in a friendly against Sweden in 2012. Similarly, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was a regular in the Republic of Ireland youth sides but after a breakthrough season faced media pressure to choose a country. The attacker eventually declared for England, despite repeated attempts by Martin O’Neill to call up Grealish to the Irish squad. Currently injured and at a Championship club, Grealish’s prospects of breaking into Gareth Southgate’s squad seem remote.
Regardless of their long-term potential, many countries have attempted to tie young players down as early as possible. Wales have been particularly prolific in this regard. A then 16-year-old Harry Wilson became their youngest ever player in 2013, while Liverpool teenager Ben Woodburn, who announced his arrival with a long-range winner in Georgia, already has four caps. Expect to see 16-year-old Chelsea defender Ethan Ampadu (Wales, Ireland, England and Ghana) make his debut for Wales in the near future.
Even though I support Wales, and the idea of an Andrews lining up for Italy amuses me more than it should, I’ve decided to let my child choose for themselves should they inherit genes that will have skipped a generation. As we’re having a girl, I can think of no greater role models for my daughter than the Matildas – Australia’s successful and likeable national team. I’ve no wish to push my daughter into any sport she doesn’t want to participate in, but if one day she tells that she want to be the next Sam Kerr I’ll be a very proud father. Gary Andrews