Nationalism hangs in the balance as Rooney speaks

Posted by Mark Payne

Nationalism is an emotive subject. It can mobilise populations to grand achievements and terrible atrocities. It has been some time since it inspired a group of Englishmen to play football at an exceptional level. With a place at next year's World Cup at stake, this week will see the national side try to claim their place. The build-up, inevitably, has been all talk.

Adnan Januzaj's two goals for Manchester United last weekend sparked a debate about which national team he might play for. As millions are, he is from a mixed ethnic background and has moved around in his life. His options are open. Because a minuscule chance that he might play for England exists, the debate about whether or not he should has dominated the sports news this week.

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With depressing predictability, this subject was raised during the news conference for England's players. Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere is a 21-year-old who is unlikely to have much life experience beyond football pitches and lads' nights out. When bombarded with heavily loaded questions from tertiary-educated journalists he responded that "England should be for the English." And now he has been branded everything from a xenophobe to insular to an advert for what is wrong with Britain today.

All this really proves is that England, and Great Britain, is currently experiencing an identity crisis that it insists on playing out in the national media via a group of footballers and, thanks to Kevin Pietersen, other sportspeople too.

There is an argument to say that anybody who feels English should be allowed to represent the nation. Millions screamed for Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon, despite the strong Canadian accent. This, of course, was because he was born in Canada and was initially registered as a Canadian player, no less.

Closer to home, the England football team's best player at the 2006 World Cup was Owen Hargreaves, a man who, at that point, had not yet lived in the British Isles. Perhaps it should also be noted that Kent-born Tony Cascarino played international football for the Republic of Ireland. He has never lived there.

Reports suggest that the Football Association are addressing the subject and will likely impose their own criteria on who is eligible to play for the national team. This would be a huge mistake; the immigration office of the United Kingdom already does a great deal to define who is and is not British. It would make sense to leave it up to them rather than a bunch of blazer-wearing men trying to react to the latest media furore. There are also clear statutes laid out by FIFA that appear to be sufficient for the rest of the world's nations.

At present, there are no reports containing the information that matters: For whom would Januzaj like to play his football? If he had considered England, following events this week, he is bound to back away from the option. Nobody could blame him. The rhetoric from all on this debate has reflected badly on the national psyche.

Amid this mess of opinions Wayne Rooney finally spoke on the subject of his attempts to move to Chelsea this summer. As suspected, he felt compelled to move on because he was played out of position. He also felt that, after nine years at the club and having made his position clear, he perhaps deserved that opportunity. When viewed in those terms, his position seems completely reasonable.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the greatest football manager of all time, but he could hold a grudge like no one in history. Even the most ardent Ferguson followers would have to admit that he booted David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Mark Hughes out of the club too soon. Roy Keane was never replaced. Had the manager not stepped down, it seems likely that Rooney would have been the latest victim of a personal feud, rather than footballing obsolescence.

But Rooney remains at United and is on a great run of form. He is "happy" and "settled" at present. His situation appeared dire just three months ago; United fans will be delighted with the turnaround.

In the meantime, Rooney and Wilshere et al will attempt to get England to that World Cup next year. The chance to represent the nation awaits 23 lucky players. Even if nobody seems to know what that means anymore.

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