Date: 1st May 2009 at 9:46pm
Written by:

I bought the book Watching the English two years ago but didn’t finish reading it – as a foreigner living in London at the time, I thought it’s more fun observing the English than reading about them. But the mere fact that an anthropologist spent months and months researching and defining Englishness from a behavioural perspective is fascinating.

An equally fascinating debate titled ‘Should Manuel Almunia play for England?’ has been reignited in the press, after he put on a superb performance at Old Trafford that almost single-handedly kept the tie alive for Arsenal, just when the goalkeeper will have the option of applying for a UK passport in June, after living in England for five years.

A club manager as intelligent as Arsene Wenger would not get drawn too deep into these discussions about whether a player ‘should’ play for a certain country. Despite some headlines saying that Wenger ‘backs’ Almunia as the England No. 1, what the boss said about his goalkeeper was simply that he’s good enough to play for England because he’s ‘the best’ and that it’d ultimately be up to Fabio Capello and the player himself after the rules qualify him as a potential candidate:

‘I stand nowhere. There are international rules which have to be respected, but if it is possible legally, why not?’ Wenger commented. ‘Then it is more a choice left to the English Football Association or to Manuel Almunia’s desire. I believe he is not only good enough, but he is the best.

‘It is down to what you expect morally and mentally from a national team. I believe at some stage you have to observe just the rules and decide what you want.

‘It is more a moral problem maybe for Manuel Almunia. Does he consider he has a chance to play in the Spanish national team or not?’

Harry Redknapp joined the debate by giving his opinion as to who should play for England: ‘You’re English if you were born here or your mum and dad were born here.’ According to the Daily Mail, Redknapp was so adamant that he would rather lose a World Cup Final than see someone like Manuel Almunia in the England shirt: ‘If it came to a choice between England winning the World Cup with a Spanish keeper or not winning it, I’d rather not win.’

I don’t quite know why the press didn’t follow up with an obvious question to the guy who reportedly felt disappointed about ‘losing out on’ the England job last year: if you were Fabio Capello and you got a fit Owen Hargreaves available, would you pick him? (Oh right, Hargreaves’ parents were born in England, reportedly. So he must be English by his own definition?)

Another obvious question would be: do the Spanish public wish they hadn’t won the European Championship and want the Spanish FA to return the big cup to the UEFA because Marcos Senna, who was born in Brazil and only migrated to Spain at 26 in 2002, was a key player for them? The answer is apparently ‘No’, judging by the huge crowds singing, getting drunk, hugging each other, jumping up and down in fountains everywhere from Madrid to Gijon, even in Catalonia and the Basque Country, last summer. Then out of curiosity I’d like to ask: would the English public be more inclined to feel the same as the happy and proud Spaniards or the insistent Redknapp, if England achieved the same glory with Almunia in goal?

In a globalised world, in which people travel around for education, for work, for fun and whatever other reasons and qualify for residency or a new passport everywhere, someone’s nationality is not as clear-cut as before. In fact, it hasn’t been easy to define probably since the Macedonians followed Alexander the Great all the way to Asia and settled in all sorts of places, or since the Roman Empire enabled people to migrate from their places of birth en masse. In the modern world, if the Home Office has been issuing UK passport after UK passport on the 5-year-residence basis and Almunia is rightfully one of them, and the FA base their national team selection on the Home Office’s definition, what remains potentially challenging is not legal but something else entirely. And that something else is more of a cultural debate.

Rather than looking at it from a cultural perspective, Redknapp gave a sporting reason for his viewpoint: ‘It is difficult enough for hom[e] grown players [to get] into Premier League sides as it is. You could end up with a[n] England team full of foreign players and I don’t want that.’

Again, he’s confusing his own personal definition of ‘foreign players’ with the legal one. Furthermore, it is debatable whether one goalkeeper is enough to fend off a whole generation of English goalkeepers. And that it’ll necessarily mean the England team will become ‘full of’ immigrant players is a rather far-fetched presumption. But I do understand where he’s coming from.

And if to play a ‘foreigner’ is to deny an English player the chance of playing for England, what about the manager? Aren’t the FA working with the second foreign manager in Fabio Capello? Would it ‘kill’ the chances of the England team being run by an Englishman, such as, ahem, Redknapp?

Perhaps I shouldn’t dwell on his quotes too much. Nor do I have to give you examples like our very own Eduardo da Silva, who was born in Rio but is now a superstar in Croatia because of his achievements at Dinamo Zagreb as well as the national team. What it boils down to is three things:

1. Is Almunia legally eligible, in the eyes of the Home Office and the FA? (Yes, in June.)
2. Does the England manager, Fabio Capello, want to give him a call-up? (Wenger reckons Almunia is ‘the best’ option available to England. Redknapp thinks he’s no better than David James. But it’s Capello’s opinion that matters.)
3. Does Almunia want to play for England? (According to various reports before, he’s open to the idea but would give it some more thought if the opportunity arises.)

Wenger’s quote basically said that if the answers to all these three questions were ‘Yes’, then why not? Redknapp, on the other hand, suggested that, even if Almunia checked all these boxes, personally he would never agree as a matter of principle because he was not born in England, neither were his parents, and he has only lived in England for five years.

What interests me (perhaps as a foreigner) is Wenger’s question ‘Why not?’ because other than a cultural perception, I personally can’t find any explanation for such a big fuss around this issue. I’m very curious what the cultural factors are working against someone like Almunia here.

Can you tell me why not?

Disclaimer: the author of this article was not born in England, neither were her parents. She has not lived in England for more than five years and does not hold a ‘regular’ UK passport but a ‘hybrid’ one (don’t get her started on the long story about British colonial history – nor about the separate queues at Heathrow). If the editor Rocky thinks she’s a passionate Gooner and she writes okay, can she write for an English site called Vital Arsenal now?