National Interest

Listening to the ever excellent Tim Vickery and Sean Wheelock discussing the increasing numbers of footballers representing countries other than what would be generally regarded as their homeland on the international stage got me thinking about a similar subject to that of the previous post about the idea of  “home”, namely the question of nationality and how it is determined.

In the sporting world, this slippery notion of ‘belonging’ to a particular country cannot be left as simply a subject of debate for linguists, philosophers and the more bombastic politicians out there. The rules vary from sport to sport but essentially boil down to participants being permitted to represent the country of their passport, their parents’ passports, and, in some cases, allowances exist for grandparents’ passports and/or qualification by completing a set period of residency.  Football allows an individual to represent only one country in full, competitive international matches, others are more flexible in this regard.

Such a systematic approach, while necessary to ensure equality throughout a particular sport, does through up some unusual situations, as well as the odd bit of corner-cutting regarding the parts of the regulations outside the control of sporting bodies- the hoops one must jump through in order to get a passport vary greatly from country to country, and possibly more so in certain high-profile cases compared with the average for that country. The abject failure of  ‘Polish’ striker Emmanuel Olisadebe at World Cup 2002 left many critics of his accelerated naturalisation making schadenfreude-laden comparisons between that process and the man’s own relatively glacial movement during the tournament- ‘Polish’ striker could easily become Polish ‘striker’. Giuseppe Rossi and Christian Vieri, born in New Jersey and Australia respectively, are rare examples of players choosing the more difficult path of aspiring to break into the Italian setup ahead of the significantly less competitive teams of their birth nations. For Rossi in particular, this involved long and difficult years of work to achieve. Perhaps the most unusual case lately was seeing Danny Welbeck (Manchester born and bred) booed by opposition fans when he made his England debut last year against Ghana, the country of his parents.

Brazilians have represented a whole host of nations on the football field, South Africans and Australians similarly in rugby and cricket only to a greater extent as these sports allow both qualification by being a resident of a country for a given length of time and for players to represent more than one country in their careers. When push comes to shove though, how much do they really identify with the nation they are flying the flag for? Clearly we can hardly expect rules to be enforced which require sportsmen and women to only represent the country they truly feel a part of, but the question remains a valid one- what does it mean to say a person is of a certain nationality? The answers typically put forward in answer include:



-family heritage

– residency

-cultural ties (eg language, religion)

The matter of birthplace is an ever less relevant means of determining nationality in our modern, highly mobile times and, for example, hasn’t been considered sufficient to qualify a person for a British passport for nearly 30 years. I myself was only born in the UK by legal technicality and there are countless stories of babies being born on planes/boats between countries or while the parents are away from home on a short term basis. Very few of us would say that such births should result in the child being considered as having a different nationality to his/her family. Passports themselves need not represent any particular connection with a country, whether we’re talking about the passport of convenience awarded to mercenary sportsmen, or the “grey passport” of thousands of ethnically Russian Estonians not fully recognised by either their original or adopted homelands.

Residency seems a flimsy basis for nationality to me- living in a certain country is often not even a matter of personal choice let alone any heartfelt association with that place. Political, economic, personal circumstances can all lead to someone relocating for an extended period but, deep down, home may well still be home. Similarly cultural ties don’t quite feel strong enough- language has become another far more blurry concept with today’s backdrop of mass globalisation and examples of strong identity between religion and nation are few and far between.

How then do we decide which country a certain individual is ‘from’? Tests of a persons familiarity with a country’s basic rituals, customs and history have been introduced as part of citizenship applications in several countries, with the expressed notion of examining the applicant’s commitment to the country. In reality, they can be seen more as assessing commitment to getting the desired new passport- personally speaking, I felt no great attachment to the Highway Code when sitting the theory part of my driving test, I simply had to learn it sufficiently well to pass the test so I could get my driving licence.

In the end, nationality is a truly internal concept. Each of us will know, when asked by someone which country we are from, what comes immediately to mind. This is a result of an emotional attachment combining elements of all the aspects discussed above, and many others, to differing extents for each individual. Which country you are from is essentially whichever you genuinely feel is ‘yours’. Expressing this to others, or proving it to official bodies if necessary, can be tricky, but on the inside at least, it’s usually quite clear.


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