Januzaj’s parents are ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo in 1992 to avoid the Yugoslav army draft. Adnan was born in Belgium three years later, and moved to Manchester just after his sixteenth birthday to join United’s youth programme. Not surprisingly, his talents have generated much curiosity about which national team he will play for. Kosovo don’t have a side—not yet anyway—but Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Belgium and England have all been mentioned as possibilities.
The idea that Januzaj might in due course qualify for England prompted some interesting reactions. Jack Wilshere, the very home-grown Arsenal midfielder, was particularly forthright: "The only people who should play for England are English people" he insisted, when quizzed about Januzaj by the press.
I’m a great admirer of Wilshere’s onfield skills, but his attitude strikes me as indefensible. As someone whose maternal grandparents were born German Jews, and whose formative years were spent in apartheid South Africa, I am naturally sympathetic to those who seek to forge a new life in a new country. But even those who don’t share my cosmopolitan sentiments should think twice before siding with Wilshere’s little-Englandism.
Let me explain. By and large, national sporting eligibility in the modern world depends on citizenship. And citizenship in turn depends on residence. Nearly all countries allow those who have been legally resident for some fixed period to become ‘naturalized’ citizens. In Britain the required period is five years, which means that in the natural course of events Junuzaj could become British in 2016.
It might seem surprising that residence counts for so much and ancestry for so little. After all, chauvinism is an easy vote-winner pretty much everywhere. Moreover, prejudice isn’t the only motivation for wanting to restrict citizenship to those with a shared background. You don’t have to be Enoch Powell to recognize that civil society depends on more than common geographical boundaries. A healthy community requires a mutual sense of acceptable public behaviour, of how to settle disputes, of your obligations to neighbours and acquaintances, and so on.
Still, there is a basic reason why most nations aim to preserve the foundations of civil society without tying citizenship to ethnic origin. Movement of people across national boundaries has long been inevitable. Political realignments, surreptitious immigration, and above all commerce lead inexorably to a build-up of non-citizens inside national regions. And the obvious problem is that, if these newcomers are left as non-citizens indefinitely, they are likely to start resenting it and stirring up trouble.
The smart solution is to incorporate them, to sign them up to the deal on which all modern democracies rest. We will make you full citizens with all accompanying rights, and in return you will respect our shared way of doing things.
Pessimists say it won’t work. How can a Ghanaian become Italian, or a Vietnamese Australian, or indeed a Kosovan English? But history is on the side of optimism. Maybe you can’t lose your ethnicity easily (though that in itself is an interesting question), but this is no barrier to gaining a nationality. My grandparents, who remained loyal to the orthodox synagogue all their lives, were obsessed with becoming English. (My mother was an encyclopedia on the niceties of English manners.) Or just think of modern America, where successive waves of ethnic immigrants embraced their new national identity with excitement and pride.
Of course, the deal works best when the welcome is sincere. You won’t get buy-in from the newcomers if they think they are still being treated as second class citizens. They need to feel that all institutions are open to them—including national sports teams. That’s why I find Wilshere’s attitude not only mean-spirited but destructive. Once people are living in your country, it does nobody any good to discriminate against them. Imagine what it would do to social relations in Sweden or Germany if Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mesut Özil were kept out of the national teams because of their ethnic origin.
Sadly, though, it seems as though Adnan Januszaj won’t be eligible for England after all, at least not unless the rules are changed. The reason is that nowadays sporting eligibility doesn’t always follow nationality. A number of international sporting bodies have become uneasy about the readiness with which some countries hand out citizenship, and so have imposed a blanket residence requirement. In particular, FIFA, the football authority, got fed up with the number of Brazilians turning up in other countries’ sides, and so since 2008 have demanded that, in addition to citizenship, you must have lived in a country for five years before you can represent it on the football field.
Why is that a problem for Januzaj? If he becomes British on the basis of five years residence, won’t that automatically satisfy the extra FIFA requirement too? Ah, well that would work fine if there were a British football team—but there isn’t. So the so-called Home Nations have had to devise some extra rules to decide who can play for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And in their wisdom they have decreed that from 2009 you need to have been born in the relevant country, or to have a parent or grandparent born there, or to have been educated there for five years before the age of eighteen.
So even if Adnan becomes British, and lives here for the rest of his life, he will never be able to play for England. Nor, if you think about it, will anybody who moves here after they are thirteen. I’d say the Home Nations have got it badly wrong. They have put too much weight on descent, and left no room for newcomers to opt in.
Consider what their rules mean. If cricket had applied them in recent decades, carpetbaggers like Kevin Pietersen and Allan Lamb would have been fine, courtesy of their English parents, but Basil D’Oliveira would have been out. And in soccer the Canadian Owen Hargreaves would have been in, because of his English father, but Cyrille Regis MBE would never have been able to play for his country—as he didn’t move here from the Caribbean until he was fifteen.
Perhaps the Home Nations authorities didn’t fully appreciate the implications of their new policy. One would hope so. But in any case their regulations strike me as badly in need of reassessment. Perhaps this new controversy will serve to draw attention to their failings. Adnan Januzaj for England, I say.