Declan Rice made his first competitive senior international appearance on Friday. A momentous occasion for the West Ham defender, but also in the debate about players choosing one country over another for their international careers.
Rice progressed through Ireland’s youth set-up and even made three senior appearances. But none were competitive fixtures, so he wasn’t bound to the Irish, and earlier this month, Rice pledged his future to England. Gareth Southgate duly selected him for the Three Lions’ opening two Euro 2020 qualifiers.
That was met with fury in Ireland, not only because they lost a potential generational player but also because of their fierce rivalry with England, fraught with political tensions and a bloody history. It’s hard not to sympathise; they’ve essentially had a player poached by their bitterest rivals, who can offer more money and a better shot at international triumph.
It’s equally hard to begrudge Rice his choice. Born in London, he has lived his entire life in England with a footballing education completed on English shores.
And it’s possible for Rice to identify as both Irish and English. Someone having dual nationalities is a far more common phenomenon now than in previous generations. For example, Raheem Sterling chose to play for England despite being born in Jamaica, having moved to London when he was just five and, like Rice, honing his talents entirely in his adopted country.
Wilfried Zaha did the opposite to Rice and Sterling, opting to play for Ivory Coast, where he was born, rather than for England, despite making appearances across various age groups in England’s set-up and even appearing for the senior team in a friendly.
He faced a similar outcry to Rice, getting accused by the English media of betrayal, softness, taking the easy way out. Players say they don’t pay attention to the press, but Zaha probably felt vindicated after that reaction.
A wider issue still remains: these players have to make a binding choice early in their lives, but can grapple with their identities for long after. Rice is 20 years old; other international careers begin even earlier. Is that not too early an age to be forced into a lifelong commitment?
Consider Sterling, whose competitive debut for England came as a 19-year-old. If he knew then that a year later, by moving from Liverpool to Manchester City the racism he has experienced for most of his life would be dialled up to 11, the media coverage would get increasingly vicious, would he still have made the same choice?
🏠 Grew up over-looking @WembleyStadium.— SPORF (@Sporf) March 23, 2019
💉 Got a tattoo of his dream - playing at @WembleyStadium in the @England number 10 shirt.
🏴 Received his first @England cap.
👕 Earned the number 10 shirt for @England.
⚽️ Scores a hat-trick for @England.
🙏 Believe in your dreams. pic.twitter.com/lNTR2RUPP2
What if Sterling, now 24, decides he’s had enough, that he’s unappreciated in the country he calls home and that this may never change? Should a decision he made as a teenager bind him for the rest of his life?
He could retire from internationals – meaning he’d been hounded out of an England career by those abusing him. That hardly seems fair.
And this debate doesn’t apply only when there is a background of racism or any other discrimination. Personal identities can be fluid even without dark forces at work.
This is a multicultural age. People move across the world, and can belong to more than one country. A child growing up in America could identify equally with their “home” country as they do with their perhaps varied origins, anywhere from Mexico to France to India to Japan.
And that feeling of identity can change. A 16-year-old may feel more at home in the country they’re living in, and 10 years later, that same person could feel more attuned to their family’s roots.
If, ten years later, having possibly spent more time with his Irish relatives, Rice feels he made the wrong choice as a 20-year-old, shouldn’t he be allowed to change his mind?
Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha could play his first game in Africa Cup of Nations qualification after being named in a 24 man Ivory Coast squad to face Rwanda .#Offside pic.twitter.com/2jLy0ONmq1— Ghetto Radio (@GhettoRadio895) March 16, 2019
Cricket allows it. Players must take a five-year hiatus from internationals before they can change to a new country, which means they have to give up appearing in at least one World Cup – which like in football runs on a four-year cycle – but the possibility exists.
Building in that sacrifice means any country change must be a carefully considered decision. It also guards against the pitfalls of such a rule, perhaps a more powerful or successful country tempting a player into switching allegiances with promises of greater riches or potential glory on offer.
The system could be tightened by permitting only one change per career, and restricting the countries a player can switch to – maybe only allowing a change of allegiance to a country a player was eligible to represent when their career began. A country looking to build a World Cup contender shouldn’t be allowed to simply offer stars from around the world citizenship (and some financial inducement) to represent their new country five years later.
There are kinks to be worked out, and ultimately any system is ripe to be exploited. Even the current one, in which players can be eligible for multiple countries in their youth, is open to the manipulation described above.
But it’s an idea that deserves consideration. As the world grows smaller, football will only benefit by becoming more open.
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