Like the rest of the athletic world, professional soccer’s culture remains one rife with latent sexism and homophobia. The casual language of this male-dominated world persists with identifying weakness as a feminine quality (don’t be such a girl/women/[worse]). Casually, jokingly questioning another’s heterosexuality is still done for comedic effect. Soccer remains a reflection of a maturing society, one where the Robbie Rogers and Megan Rapinoes of the world are only now starting to influence people’s opinions. Though there are a lot of intelligent people in the game, the game itself is not a breeding ground for enlightened social thought.
In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising that one athlete’s view on an equally complex topic lacks nuance. Jack Wilshere’s view of national identity apparently does. England is for English players — a clumsily opined response to Adnan Januzaj’s status — but in a country with a long history of immigration (and a liberal attitude toward political refugees), it’s unclear what that definition means. Do you need to be born in England? What about the broader United Kingdom? Or is there an age threshold past which you can no longer be English? What’s necessary and what’s sufficient to make an English person English?
(If you’re unfamiliar with the Adnan Januzaj situation, the link below should help you:)
It’s difficult to blame Wilshere for his lack of nuance because there’s really no right answer to this question. Much more learned people than Wilshere (or myself) are still debating the issue, making professional footballers (and obscure bloggers) strange points of reference. In a world where globalization’s forcing us to reconsider identity — where so many political refugees without any sense of nationalism are left seeking new countries to call home — who cares what the Jack Wilsheres of the world have to say?
Right now, one country’s loophole is another’s open door. Even within the same nation, the standards change; sometimes, conveniently so.
Take England’s cricket team, which has taken the open door approach, something that’s helped fuel their rise to second in the International Cricket Council’s Test ranking. Among the 34 players the team’s used in the last year, 13 of them were born outside of England. Eight are form South Africa, with Barbabos, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe each contributing one player to the squad.
That diversity may explain why one of the South Africa cricketers, South African-born Kevin Pietersen (no stranger to his own controversy), took to Twitter to question Wilshere’s stance:
Wilshere ended his day with a few attempted clarifications:
Wilshere’s third tweet of the sequence helps narrow down his view, but the most telling tweet of the exchange my have been Pietersen’s first response to Wilshere. From a man who moved to England as a 17-year-old (making his international debut at 24), the sentiment revealed the emotion many immigrants feel. How is Jack Wilshere to say whether Pietersen’s English or not? And how can any person tell someone without a national identity that they can never truly be a part of their adopted country?
At this point, much of the English sporting public have accepted what’s happened with the cricket team. Perhaps that’s a result of the squad’s success, but it may also reflect a more globalized view of what nationalism can be. Given Pietersen was actually one year older than Januzaj when the two came to England (Januzaj came to train at Manchester United at 16), Wilshere’s view looks even more precarious. Broader, national standards run contrary to the English midfielder’s stance.
There are two important differences between Pietersen and Januzaj, though. First, Pietersen has and English mother, something that made him immediately eligible for the national team. Januzaj was born in Belgium, is Albanian by ethnicity, is eligible to play for Serbia and, if Kosovo were every recognized by FIFA, would have a fourth country from which to choose. Without an English parent, his England claim would be based on residency alone.
All of which brings us back to identity. On a personal level, Januzaj may not feel Albanian, Belgian, Kosovar or Serbian, and having spent the most important years of his life in England, perhaps he would develop a national identity by the time he’s 22 – when he would be eligible to play for the Three Lions. Just as Pietersen felt more English in the face of South Africa’s politics, Januzaj by see himself as English for his own, personal reasons.
Contrary to what Wilshere implies in one of his tweets, the second major difference between Pietersen and Januzaj shouldn’t matter. That a person’s a footballer, not a cricketer, should be irrelevant. We may not yet know exactly how to define a person’s identity, but it certainly can’t be dependent on whether you play one sport instead of another. Let it come down to personal preference if need be (something that admittedly leaves potential to be abused for sporting reasons), but certainly don’t let sport decide who are you and who you are not.
When it comes to national identity, I don’t have the answers. Clearly, neither does Jack Wilshere. And nobody expects him to have them. So within reason, why do we care what he has to contribute to the conversation? Perhaps he has surprisingly enlightened things to say on other topics, at which time we can talk about them, but this clearly isn’t one of them. Is anybody’s view on English identity going to be influenced by what Jack Wilshere had to offer?
Let’s hope not. And let’s also hope that, in time, we can agree: Athletes may not be the best source for nuanced social commentary. There will always be except to that rule, but we need to get away from any standard that assumes an athlete’s view on such a complex issue is worth this level of consideration.
There are a lot of smart people in the world who may be able to identify what being English really means. Jack Wilshere’s not one of them. And nobody should have expected him to be.