International sport is a difficult thing to rationalise when you’re not especially patriotic. I used to think that I was, in a totally innocent and non-threatening way, until I actually began to question the concept, why politicians seemed so keen on it, and whether or not it had achieved anything positive in the world. Looking at it rationally, I find it hard to take any real sense of pride in the place of my birth, something over which I had no control. It also seems difficult to convincingly argue that patriotism can be felt without appeals to ‘group think’ or that being born where you were somehow makes you better than other people, entitled to something they aren’t, when it quite evidently doesn’t.
It probably goes as far as this – I sincerely hope that England beat Montenegro tomorrow night, repeat the trick against Poland next week and qualify for the World Cup. That said, the absence of the sort of jingoistic blindness that drives the absurd tabloid coverage ahead of major sports tournaments leaves me under no illusions whatsoever about the scope for it all to go badly fucking wrong. Montenegro remain unbeaten in three matches against England to date, while Jan Tomaszewski, famously dubbed ‘a clown’ by Brian Clough before a match that decided who made the 1974 World Cup, put in a super-human performance to deny the hosts at Wembley. It really is no formality.
Of course, I’m also immensely grateful that I don’t live in an utter shite-hole ravaged by war or famine.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Adnan Januzaj. Having barely broken into the Manchester United first team, the Belgian-born midfielder (also eligible for Albania and Serbia) seemed to become the object on which future English international hopes were pinned, through no fault of his own and having said precisely fuck all on the subject of qualifying for England himself. Then Jack Wilshere, probably the country’s best player while Joe Hart appears to be going through a ‘ball made of soap’ phase, makes an innocent enough comment about the England team preferably picking, er, English people, and cops what he rightly dismisses as some ‘lazy journalism’ as a result, as if he were arguing for enforced repatriation.
Nationality is of course about more than your place of birth. Nobody who remembers the iconic ‘headband’ image of Terry Butcher after an England vs Sweden game in 1989 could possibly argue that being born in Singapore made him in any way less English or proud to wear the shirt . Mo Farah’s double olympic gold was as much a personal story as it was one of athletics, the phenomenal efforts of an all-time great of his sport, who moved to Britain at the age of eight and clearly feels an affinity with the place he now calls home. I don’t necessarily think Wilshere meant English-born when he said ‘English’, but if he did then he’s over-simplifying it somewhat.
Of course there will always be mercenaries – I recall watching a distance race on television a few years ago where eight Kenyans led the field, four apiece representing their native country and that of Qatar, who had secured them passports and covered the costs of re-location as an inentive to switch alleignace. Don’t be surpised to see half a dozen ‘naturalised’ Qataris lining up when they host the 2022 football World Cup, where matches look likely to take place over Christmas in the early hours of the morning thanks to some highly impressive incompetence (or corruption) from FIFA. But that’s probably a lengthy post for another night…
There is, however, a bigger question here, of why we’re feeling the need to pinch sporting talent developed by other nations. In reality, we aren’t particularly good at developing elite level competitors in most sports, especially when you factor in that Andy Murray, probably the most successful British sportsman of the last decade, honed his craft on the Spanish Tennis Circuit and had very little to do with the LTA. Much as their convincing Ashes victory was cause for celebration, is it not worrying that half of the England cricket team was born overseas? Yet again they’ve added to their strength in depth by pinching Ireland’s best player, the tall and intimidating fast bowler Boyd Rankin.
What are we getting wrong? And how much longer can English and British sport patch up apparent inadequacies by recruiting talent from elsewhere? As a country, we seem to place far too much emphasis on what some refer to as ‘passsion’, ‘getting stuck in’ and ‘three lions on the shirt’ in favour of more tangible technical and physical abilities. We also like our sporting heroes to be modest, which is probably why Kevin Pietersen gets such a bad press, and could not possibly have been the product of an English sporting academy. Do we need to accept that the efficiently lazy genius, possessed of supreme self-confidence, is also a match-winner and needs to be embraced?
A team ethic is fantastic, but it’s worth remembering that all great things that are remembered have been achieved by gifted individuals. If winning is the aim, then stifling or crushing that spark of flair makes no sense whatsoever. Take it easy.