October 9, 2013 6:17 pm

An England team that’s true to itself

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According to a certain mindset, we lose at football because of all our splendid national traits
England's Jack Wilshere

Three Lions on the shirt; one chip on the shoulder. The characteristics of English football are captured in numbers. In addition to the nation’s best-loved soccer song English fans can also count on “two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah”.

But the question of what truly defines English soccer cropped up again this week when one of the country’s stars rejected the rather desperate notion of the football authorities using loose eligibility rules to offer a place in the national team to a Belgian-born prodigy. Jack Wilshere, widely seen as a future England captain, said: “The only people who should play for England are English people.”

It seems unlikely that there was a real racial motive in Wilshere’s remarkably blunt answer and the case in question would certainly stretch most ordinary people’s concept of nationality – but at least as interesting was the young star’s romantic notion of what it is to be an England player. In almost Shakespearean tones Wilshere offered soccer’s “this England”. “We are English,” he emoted. “We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”

For Wilshere, the traits of the English national team are inescapably interwoven with what he sees as the traits of the English themselves. England may not be as technical or elegant as them there Spaniards (the reigning world and European champions universally hailed for the beauty of their game) but we’ve got heart and guts and we sank their Armada.

The long-suffering England fans (many of whom are not old enough to remember the 1966 World Cup, let alone the two world wars) may see things rather less lyrically. They all know what English football is about: brave defeats; couldn’t have tried harder, Garth; gutted for the fans; Bobby Charlton, comb-overs; gritty 1-0 wins; the desperate long ball into the penalty area, couldn’t have asked for more; lumbering centre forwards; knocked out in the quarter finals; what was the referee thinking? Who knew we’d have to take penalties?

In this mindset a gutsy performance against a superior team is an indicator of the team’s beating heart rather than the technical inadequacies that necessitated it.

Such an approach has its upsides. How better to explain your team’s lamentable record than as a manifestation of all that is otherwise great about your country. Yes we lose, but we lose because of all our splendid national traits.

It is not a view shared by other sports. England’s cricket team is full of South Africans and, coincidentally, currently ranked number two in the world, behind, er, South Africa. At the 2012 Olympics, the nation rejoiced in the victories of the Somalia-born runner Mo Farah, though to be fair to the athlete, he has lived in Britain since he was eight. The country has taken him to its heart but, then, sporting success seems to erode national boundaries.

Wilshire later denied his comments were aimed at Adnan Januzaj, the young Belgian currently playing for Manchester United. This is a pity as they would be a lot more defensible if they were. There is no doubt Wilshere is a fierce patriot. On St George’s day he tweeted a poem with the verse “the English race I will not disgrace”.

England has deployed foreign-born players before but they have been people committed to the country, raised in Britain and normally brought here as young children by migrating or asylum-seeking parents. They may not be ethnically English but they consider England home. Januzaj is different. He came to the UK solely to play for Man Utd and patently does not consider himself British. Reports suggest that in the absence of a team for Kosovo – his parents were born there – Januzaj wants to play for Albania.

The idea of doling out England caps to any talented player, however tenuous their connection with the nation, certainly rankles. Many will share Wilshere’s view that such a step cheapens the meaning of being chosen to play for your country and that victory is not the only yardstick that counts.

But where, then, is the line? Does a player require English parents or an English birthplace? Is some English blood required or is being raised here enough? Ought he to be able to speak English, or might this discriminate against the locals?

Perhaps the only requirement is an understanding that whatever they do, England players must not perform like Spain on the world stage.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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