Footballer in fresh row over ‘Englishness’

Outspoken: Wilshere sparks controversy and hits the headlines again © Getty Images

Pundits are fighting over who should be allowed to join the national football team. No foreign players should play for England, says midfielder Jack Wilshere – but who counts as foreign?

Jack Wilshere is in trouble again. Last week, the young England midfielder was doing desperate damage control after being photographed with a cigarette on a night out with friends. Now he is tangled up in a fresh row over who should play in the English national team.

It was an interview that landed Wilshere back in hot water. ‘The only people who should play for England are English people,’ he told a reporter.

It sounds uncontroversial. The whole idea of the England football team is that it should be made up of the best English footballers. The problem is: what counts as being English?

For example, could Adnan Januzaj, a promising young talent who scored twice for Manchester United last week, one day pull on an England shirt? Born in Belgium to Kosovan-Albanian parents, he is eligible for the Belgian, Serbian, Albanian and (through his grandparents) Turkish national teams.

But since Januzaj now lives in England, he could one day qualify for the English team too, under the rules set by FIFA, the governing body for international football. In 2018, Januzaj will have lived in England as an adult for five years and could join the national team.

It was a question about Januzaj that provoked Wilshere’s comments on the England team, but there are plenty of other examples too. England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who grew up in South Africa, took to Twitter to reel off a list of foreign born athletes representing England at the highest level. Are sportsmen like Justin Rose, Jonathan Trott and Mo Farah too ‘foreign’ to wear the England colours, Pietersen wanted to know.

Wilshere was quick to soften his position, but at the same time, other voices were being raised in his support. Former England captain Alan Shearer said only players born in England should qualify for the national team. Arsene Wenger, who manages Wilshere at Arsenal Football Club, suggested that the manager and coaches of the England team should all be English too.

There is a third view. In the modern world of constantly shifting populations, where nationality is so fluid and hard to pin down, why do we bother with the old fashioned patriotic spectacle of international football at all?

Forever England

The whole point of international football is as a vehicle for national pride and competition, say traditionalists. Loose selection rules mean that players can pick and choose which country to play for, hiring themselves out like mercenaries to the highest bidder. Where is the pride in that?

Pride comes from winning competitions, say more practical types. And winning competitions is easier when you can choose from the best talent the world has to offer.

You Decide

  1. Should footballers always play for the country where they were born?
  2. Does your national football team deserve your support? Why?


  1. Take a class survey to see how people define their geographical identity. Which is most important: neighbourhood, town or city, region, nation, continent or planet?
  2. Write a short philosophical definition of the term ‘English’, being as precise as you can.

Some People Say...

“The England team is useless and irrelevant in the modern world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So can top footballers more or less choose their nationality?
Not exactly. FIFA says they must live in a country for five years to qualify, and must not have committed themselves to any other national team. That said, it is much easier for footballers to move to other countries than for ordinary people.
Why’s that?
Footballers can often get special permission to live in a country, where ‘low skilled workers’ might struggle. Many countries have tough rules preventing foreigners from settling long term. UK citizens have it comparatively easy moving abroad, but it is very difficult for foreign citizens to get permission to live and work in the UK. For young people in poor countries, football can be both a job and a passport to the wider world.

Word Watch

The small region of Kosovo, in Eastern Europe, operates as an independent state but is not recognised as a nation by the UN. Kosovar footballers have the choice either to represent Serbia, of which Kosovo used to be a part, or Albania, which has a strong cultural connection to Kosovo.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association sets the rules and regulations for international football competitions. Although FIFA rules allow a player with five years residency in a country to play for that country’s national team, the nations of the UK have agreed to use tougher selection rules for the time being. Players are required to have spent five years being educated in England under the age of 18 to qualify for the squad.
Mo Farah
Runner Mo Farah was born in Somalia and lived in Djibouti until the age of eight, when he first came to the UK to join his English father. He moved to the US in 2011 to work with a new trainer, but won two gold medals for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympic Games.
In 2001, England’s Football Association appointed the country’s first ever foreign manager, Sven-Göran Erikson, to run the national team. In 2008, another foreign manager was appointed. Fabio Capello, who coached Jack Wilshere among other players, spoke almost no English when he arrived to take the job.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.