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


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.

The 1934 final was contested by Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists. Austria were early favourites in 1938, until the country was annexed by Germany and officially ceased to exist.

Before we get excited about national identities, we should remember how easily they change.

If we go back another 83 years from the date of the first World Cup, to 1847, we find a Europe that is barely recognisable to modern eyes. The two European countries with most World Cup wins – Italy and Germany – do not even exist on an 1847 map.

Imagine how the European football scene would look under 1847 boundaries. The local national team in Cologne would be not Germany, but Prussia. Of the 14 German players who beat Ireland 3-0 on Friday, only five would be eligible to play for the Prussians. Sidney Sam and Max Kruse would represent Schleswig-Holstein. Per Mertesacker would belong to Hannover. Sami Khedira would be the captain of Württemberg, while Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Götze, Müller and Schürrle would play for Bavaria.

The giants of European football under 1847 boundaries would be the Austrian empire. They’d have Petr Cech in goal, David Alaba in defence, Luka Modric, Andrea Pirlo and Marek Hamsik in midfield, with Edin Dzeko and Mario Mandzukic up front. These “Austrians” would be heirs to the tradition of Sindelar, Puskas, Kubala, Albert, Maldini, Baggio, Prosinecki and Nedved.

Would all the peoples of the Austrian empire be able to get behind “their” team? The mass domestic popularity of the Italian and German national teams suggests they could. Italy looked united in 2006, when the Neapolitan captain Cannavaro lifted the World Cup alongside the Tuscan Gianluigi Buffon, the Roman Francesco Totti, and the Venetian Alessandro del Piero. Yet last week there was proof that Italy’s ancient regionalism abides when the Italian football federation announced that Milan would play their next home game behind closed doors after their fans chanted abuse about Neapolitans.

Constantly mutates
National identity is not something fixed and immutable – an eternal truth buried somewhere in the DNA, as Joachim Löw might put it. It’s an imaginary concept that constantly mutates in response to political and technological change. In the age of cheap air travel, global media and instant communication, national identity may not mean much at all, except as a way of determining which international sports teams you’re supposed to cheer for.

The sports teams themselves have arguably become the primary wellspring of nationalist feeling. If those national teams reflect how our world is changing by welcoming “foreign” players, why should anyone have a problem with that?

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