The Beautiful Game

We think sports teams are a tribal symbol of national identity. But could they offer a vision of an inclusive and harmonious society?

In the modern world, sport is a crucial part of national identity. A victory over historical rivals can lift a country, a defeat can cast it down. Labour’s loss in the 1970 general election is widely attributed to England’s elimination from the World Cup a few days earlier. Half a million Czechoslovakians thronged the streets when their team beat the Russians in the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championship. When Uruguay upset Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final, most of the bars and restaurants in Rio closed their shutters.

The make-up of national teams comes to function as a visible symbol of national character. The people representing us on the field show us what kind of country we are. And this means that the rules governing eligibility for national selection assume a critical importance. Who is entitled to play for the national team? The answer is an important marker of attitudes towards immigrants and refugees.

Consider Adnan Januzaj, who has been on Manchester United’s books since shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Januzaj’s parents are ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo in 1992 to avoid the Yugoslav army draft. Adnan was born in Belgium three years later and moved to Manchester to join United’s youth programme in 2011.

Once Januzaj broke into United’s first team two years later, his talents generated much debate about which national team he would end up playing for. Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Belgium and England were all mentioned as possibilities.

The idea that Januzaj might qualify for England prompted some interesting reactions. Jack Wilshere, the very home-grown Arsenal midfielder, was particularly forthright: "The only people who should play for England are English people" he insisted when quizzed by the press.

I’m a great admirer of Wilshere’s skills but his attitude strikes me as indefensible. As someone whose maternal grandparents were born German Jews, and whose formative years were spent in apartheid South Africa, I am naturally sympathetic to those who seek to forge a new life in a new country. But even those who don’t share my cosmopolitan sentiments should think twice before siding with Wilshere’s little-Englandism.

It is not hard to expose the dangers implicit in Wilshere’s attitude. By and large, national sporting eligibility in the modern world depends on citizenship. And citizenship in turn depends on residence. Nearly all countries allow those who have been legally resident for some fixed period to become ‘naturalized’ citizens. In Britain the required period is five years and so Junuzaj became eligible for British citizenship last year.

Somewhat less familiarly, most countries make residence necessary for citizenship. True, you can be a citizen of a country that you have never set foot in, courtesy of your parent’s citizenship. But this is basically a device to avoid mothers having to scurry back to their homeland to give birth, and you aren’t allowed to iterate it indefinitely. In Britain, for example, citizenship by descent runs out after one generation, as the grandchildren of emigrants often discover to their cost.

It might seem surprising that residence counts for so much and ancestry for so little. After all, chauvinism is an easy vote-winner pretty much everywhere. Moreover, prejudice isn’t the only motivation for wanting to restrict citizenship to those with a shared background. You don’t have to be Enoch Powell or Donald Trump to recognize that civil society depends on more than common geographical boundaries. A healthy community requires a mutual sense of acceptable public behaviour, how to settle disputes, your obligations to neighbours and acquaintances, and so on.

Still, there is a basic reason why most nations aim to preserve the foundations of civil society without tying citizenship to ethnic origin. Movement of people across national boundaries has long been inevitable. Political realignments, surreptitious immigration, and above all commerce lead inexorably to non-citizens in other national regions. And the obvious problem is that if these newcomers are left as non-citizens indefinitely, they are likely to resent it and stir up trouble.

They are paying taxes and are subject the laws of the country. So why don’t they have a vote and access to the full range of opportunities open to citizens? Any immigrant groups who find themselves permanently excluded in this way are likely to be limited in their enthusiasm for their hosts’ way of doing things.

The smart solution is to incorporate them, to sign them up to the deal on which all modern democracies rest: we will make you full citizens with all accompanying rights, and in return you will respect our shared way of doing things. 


"Newcomers to a country need to feel that all institutions are open to them - including national sports teams."


Pessimists say it won’t work. How can a Ghanaian become Italian, or a Vietnamese Australian, or indeed a Kosovan English? But history is on the side of optimism. Maybe you can’t lose your ethnicity easily (though that, in itself, is an interesting question), but this is no barrier to gaining a nationality. My grandparents, who remained loyal to the orthodox synagogue all their lives, were obsessed with becoming English. (My mother was an encyclopaedia on the niceties of English manners.) Or think of modern America where successive waves of ethnic immigrants embrace their new national identity with excitement and pride.

Of course, the deal works best when the welcome is sincere. You won’t get buy-in from the newcomers if they think they are still being treated as second-class citizens. They need to feel that all institutions are open to them—including national sports teams. That is why I find Wilshere’s attitude not only mean-spirited but destructive. Once people are living in your country, it does nobody any good to discriminate against them. Imagine what it would do to social relations in Sweden or Germany if Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mesut Özil had been kept out of the national teams because of their origins.

Worryingly, though, immigrants like Adnan Januszaj can’t gain eligibility for England after all, at least not unless our rules are changed. Nowadays, sporting eligibility doesn’t always follow nationality. A number of international sporting bodies, uneasy about the readiness with which some countries hand out citizenship, have imposed a blanket residence requirement. In particular, FIFA, the football authority, became fed up with the number of Brazilians turning up in other countries’ sides, and since 2008 have demanded that, in addition to citizenship, you must have lived in a country for five years before you can be a representative on the football field.

Why would that be a problem for Januzaj? If he became British on the basis of five years residence, wouldn’t that automatically satisfy the extra FIFA requirement too? Well, that would be fine if there were a British football team—but there isn’t. Instead, the so-called Home Nations have had to devise extra rules to decide who can play for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And in their wisdom they have decreed that from 2009 you need to have been born in the relevant country, or to have a parent or grandparent born there, or to have been educated there for five years before the age of eighteen.

So even if Adnan became British, and lived here for the rest of his life, he would never qualify to play for England. Nor, if you think about it, will anybody who moves here after the age of thirteen. I’d say the Home Nations have got it badly wrong. They have put too much weight on descent, and left no room for newcomers.

Consider what their rules mean. If cricket had applied them in recent decades, carpetbaggers like Kevin Pietersen and Allan Lamb would have been fine, courtesy of their English parents, but Basil D’Oliveira would have been out. And in soccer, the Canadian Owen Hargreaves would have been in, because of his English father, but Cyrille Regis MBE would never have been able to play for his country—because he didn’t move here from the Caribbean until he was fifteen. 

As it happens, these pernicious Home Nations’ rules do not seem to be widely known. As late as 2013, the England manager Roy Hodgson was talking about the possibility of drafting Januzaj once he had lived in England for five years.

In the event, Januzaj finally opted for Belgium and played for them in the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps that is where his heart always lay. After all, he did live in Belgium until he was sixteen. But who knows? Maybe the lad fell in love with England once he moved here, and would have chosen England if he could.

I would far prefer Januzaj to have been given the option. The British football eligibility rules strike me as taking attachment to kith and kin to extremes. It is one thing to insist that new citizens must show genuine loyalty to their new country, both on and off the sports field. But that is no justification for permanently rejecting anybody who spent the first part of their childhood elsewhere. That is nothing but a slap in the face to all immigrants and refugees, telling them they will never become real citizens, however long they live in the country. It is no recipe for a harmonious society.


This is a modified extract from David Papineau's upcoming book, Knowing the Score: What Sports Can Teach Us about Philosophy.

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