Apparently, Manuel Almunia – Arsenal FC’s Spanish-born goalkeeper – is considering changing his nationality in order to be eligible to play for England. As the story on the BBC website put it: “The Spaniard, who has said he would consider playing for England, will be eligible to apply for citizenship this summer having signed in 2004. And that would enable the 31-year-old, who has never represented Spain, to play for England under Fabio Capello”.
Well, I suppose if we can have an Italian manager, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a Spanish keeper! Regardless of the question of the rules relating to eligibility for national teams, which I’ll return to, what amuses me about the way this story was reported is the automatic assumption that acquiring British citizenship makes you qualified to play for England. Not once in the BBC article is the distinction between becoming a British citizen and being eligible for the England team even pointed out. Indeed, the article quotes Almunia’s manager – the Frenchman, Arsene Wenger – without comment: “On the English side, for the national team, it is not so much a problem because if the guy decides to become English, he has had to observe and respect the rules like anybody else. Why should he then not be qualified to play for the national team?”
So Almunia is going to ‘become English’ now, is he? I thought he was going to become a British citizen! Does a naturalised Spaniard living in England automatically become English as well as British? I hope for Almunia’s sake that if he does take British citizenship, he will also take England to his heart and make her his adopted country; and that it won’t be just another case of a foreign national taking on British nationality as a flag of convenience to enable them to pursue the opportunities afforded to them here: in this case, playing for the England football team – but without any real identification with or love for England, but merely to fulfil the personal ambition to play in the World Cup Finals.
It’s an interesting thought, though: the idea that taking on British citizenship might automatically entitle one to be considered – indeed, might oblige one to identify – as one or other of English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In other words, in order to be British, you would have to also take on the national identity of one of the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. This would make British nationality logically dependent on being English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. In this sense, there would be no such thing as ‘British Spanish’ (or a Spanish Brit), nor, on the same basis, ‘British Indian’, ‘British Caribbean’ or ‘British Pakistani’. British English, British Scottish, British Welsh and British Irish (and, yes, British Cornish), maybe. Indeed, one might make a person’s Englishness (and Scottishness, Welshness, etc.) the true test of their Britishness – better than any Citizenship Test. Food for thought.
But I digress. There are two main things at work in this story: 1) the unthinking equation of, and slippage between, English and British identity throughout the BBC-website article, as demonstrated in the above quotes; and 2) the assumption that becoming a British citizen would be sufficient to qualify Almunia to play for England. Or should I say ‘presumption’, certainly on Arsene Wenger’s part, and maybe Almunia’s. I think, on the contrary, that you need to be English, not just British, to play for England. You can be English by adoption and not just by birth; but I do think that this adoption needs to take place. After all, adoption, though technically (legally) one way (the new parents formally declare the child as their own), is in fact a two-way process: in order to bond with its new family, the child must also emotionally adopt its new parents as its own. If Almunia and the football establishment want England supporters to adopt him into the family, he must also adopt us as his new home nation.
But talking of ‘home nations’, it isn’t even clear in the technical, legal, sense that by becoming a Brit, Almunia will be able to play for England. In an interesting discussion on FIFA’s rules on eligibility for national teams, a post on England Football Online concludes that the present FIFA rules leave a degree of ambiguity in situations where a player’s nationality “entitles him to represent more than one Association”: typically, in the case of someone who becomes a British citizen and who would therefore be eligible to play for any of the four national British sides, so long as he has never played for the national team of his original country, which Almunia hasn’t. In these cases, FIFA’s Executive Committee reserves the right to decide.
Here again, no automatic right to play for England by virtue solely of being British – but this time from the ultimate lawmakers of football. Would that our own lawmakers in the UK were such jealous guardians of the primacy of belonging to a nation over mere citizenship!
But at least if Almunia was declared eligible to play for England, on completion of his naturalisation, that would mean Arsenal would have two English players in their first team, instead of just one at present!