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Adnan Januzaj, Jack Wilshere and the Curious Case of International Soccer National Identity

Kitchee FC v Manchester United

In the last three or four days, every single soccer story emanating from England seemingly involves Manchester United 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj in some way, shape or fashion. It’s bizarre considering the Premier League is off until next weekend due to the FIFA international break and yet Januzaj remains the hottest of hot topics in England.

Let’s start off here with a couple indusputiable facts about the previously unknown Januzaj.

  • He was born on Feb. 5, 1995 in Brussels, Belgium.
  • Through his parents he is eligible to represent Albanian, Serbia, Kosovo (not recognized by FIFA)  and Turkey internationally.
  • He has yet to play for any of the Belgium youth teams.
  • He has played in three Premier League matches for United for a grand total of 145 minutes, scoring twice.

Yes, this is certainly a lot to say about an 18-year-old with minimal top flight experience. That said, he scored twice to help Manchester United beat last-place Sunderland 2-1 over the weekend. Including the goal below. When you score goals like that, people take notice and the hype machine takes over.

janu

Since Januzaj has yet to fully declare his international future to Belgium — or any of his options — it’s set off quite a debate in England after National Team manager Roy Hodgson said the English FA would “monitor” his progress. Januzaj has lived in England since moving to United in 2011. Under FIFA rules players can switch allegiances if, “he has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association.” There are also some rules in the United Kingdom Home Nations which could render the debate moot before it even starts.

In any case, it’s doubtful Januzaj is going to wait another three years to start his international career. This playing for England thing is likely nothing more than a fodder for debate in a slow news week across the Atlantic. If anything it’s a distraction from how precarious England’s World Cup qualifying status is at moment — the Three Lions host Montenegro and Poland, needing wins in both matches to ensure direct qualification.

It didn’t stop one of England’s prominent young players, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, from sticking his boot firmly in his mouth. Here’s what the 21-year-old said during England training this week as they prepare for a crucial game with Montenegro:

“The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play. It doesn’t mean you can play for a country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I’m not going to play for Spain.’’

FB-WC2014-ENG-PRESSERThe irony here is the Arsenal midfielder picked Spain, which recently naturalized Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa and, of course, Wilshere wouldn’t be good enough to play for La Roja regardless of how many cigarettes he’s smoked while walking on the beaches of Ibiza.

He did say on Twitter Wednesday being English didn’t mean born in England, although he stood by his thought that he was against adult players moving to a new country to obtain a passport.

This issue in question is nothing new, either. FIFA’s rules for national teams have always been fast-and-loose. Real Madrid legend Alfredo DiStefano was born in Argentina in 1926 yet represented the nation of his birth, Colombia and later Spain. Somehow his Hungarian teammate, the great Ferenc Puskas, also turned out for Spain after leading Hungary to the 1954 World Cup final. Italy throughout its history has used Argentine-born players, Oriundo, dating back from its World Cup winners in the 1930s up to today with players like Mauro Camoranesi and Pablo Osvaldo.

The list goes on and on. There are too many naturalized Brazilians playing for different countries to count.

Throughout its history the U.S. National Team has used foreign-born American players such as Earnie Stewart, Thomas Dooley and now Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and John Brooks. Recently we saw Aron Johannsson declare for the U.S., despite living most of his life in Iceland. (The U.S. has also lost players with ties abroad, famously Giuseppe Rossi.)

The big difference here is these players had an American parent, usually a U.S. serviceman stationed overseas. Johannsson was born in Alabama. The one notable time the U.S. tried to sneak in a player with strained ties was Frenchman David Regis, through his American wife. The move was emblematic of the Yanks last-place showing under Steve Sampson at the 1998 World Cup in France.

What makes the Januzaj case feel a little different is that he doesn’t exactly have a tie to England, other than the fact he moved there to play soccer for Manchester United — a free agent if you will. Many prominent players with Balkan roots are scattered across Europe due to the turmoil that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. If Januzaj played for Belgium, where he was born and raised, it wouldn’t even be an issue like it isn’t for Bayern’s Kosovo-born Swiss midfieler, Xherdan Shaqiri.

[Related: Eric Wynalda Doesn’t Hold Back, Swings on American Soccer Coaches, Says “No Way” Qatar World Cup Happens]

Still, with the ever-changing dynamics of the global population, with more and more immigration across the globe cases like Januzaj will likely crop up with increasing frequency, especially in the larger, more prosperous soccer nations. As a result it might mean international soccer becomes more homogeneous and teams lack a distinct “national” identity, which isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.

If we extrapolate it even further, we could see soccer “mercenaries,” where talent young kids move to a country and not only play for a club team but try to acquire citizenship/passport concurrently. You wonder, what would have happened if Lionel Messi came along a little later. He moved from Argentina to play for FC Barcelona in 2000 when he was 13, yet retained his allegiance to his homeland. In retrospect, would he have rather waited to acquire Spanish citizenship to play for its historically strong team?

In the year 2013 FIFA — which can’t get anything right most of the time — isn’t going to come up with a decree that national teams are only for players born inside the borders of a country. It would be dumb and wrongheaded, like Wilshere’s initial thought England’s National Team should be for the “English.” What does that even mean, that you enjoy black pudding and the music of Robbie Williams?

Jokes aside, Januzaj will probably never suit up for the Three Lions. Even so, soccer fans are going to have to learn to live with this new, increasingly multi-cultural international landscape and hopefully embrace it in the process, so long as passports aren’t handed out like Tic Tacs. It’s not going to revert backwards to some idealistic vision of a National Team Wilshere or others might have in his mind.

As soccer history has shown that world probably never existed in the first place.

Related: Adnan Januzaj: Manchester United 18-Year-Old is EPL Star of the Day

 

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