National identity may not mean much except to determine which team to support
Before we get excited about national identities we should remember how easily they change
Adnan Januzaj’s (centre) ‘total lack of interest in representing England was incidental to the media desire to fill a dew days and shift a few units.’ Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
It was difficult to get excited about the “Adnan Januzaj-for-England?” saga since something about it didn’t ring true from the start. It seemed that Januzaj’s total lack of interest in representing England was incidental to the media desire to fill a few days and shift a few units.
There was, however, an interesting offshoot to the story, when Jack Wilshere was invited to comment on a hypothetical scenario where a foreign-born player like Januzaj was keeping Wilshere out of the England team.
“For me if you are English you are English and you play for England, you know,” Wilshere said. “I think the only people who should play for England is English people. If you lived in England for five years for me it doesn’t make you English.”
Wilshere’s view was at odds with British immigration policy, which says that foreigners who live in the UK for five years can become British citizens provided they can pass the Life in the UK test – a multiple-choice quiz which asks questions like whether it is true or false that many British people eat turkey at Christmas.
Wilshere was also at odds with Fifa, who say that you can play for a country you’ve been living in for five years as long as you haven’t already played competitively for another country.
Nevertheless, Wilshere’s attitude resonated with a section of the English media who agreed with his gut feeling that, whatever the official guidelines, Englishness is not something you can acquire simply by living in England for five years.
The difficulty with Wilshere’s position is that it begs a complicated question: what exactly is Englishness?
Waves of immigrants
The population of England, like that of every other European country, is descended from waves of immigrants: Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and so on up to the present day.
As of 2010, more than 10 per cent of the UK population was born in another country.
Since recent immigrants make up such a large proportion of the population, why shouldn’t the team that claims to represent England contain some recent immigrants?
If the idea seems out of step with what international football is supposed to be about, maybe it’s because the international football system is out of step with modernity.
The first World Cup was played in 1930, at the start of Auden’s “low, dishonest decade”, when the age of nationalism was reaching its height. It’s only been 83 years: close to the average European life expectancy. A look at the World Cups of the 1930s shows how profoundly the world can change in the spell of a single lifetime.
Jules Rimet conceived the tournament as an antidote to nationalist rancour, only to see the early World Cups dominated by the Italy of Mussolini, who was intent on using the football team to build an Italian nationalist mythos.