Friday, October 11, 2013

Jack Wilshire and the Ghost of Norman Tebbit

Taxi for Jack Wilshire! Earlier this week Wilshire, the 22 year old Arsenal and England midfielder, committed the cardinal sin of saying something extremely stupid at the single most inopportune time. Speaking to the BBC, Wilshire explained that he believes the England team should be for ‘English’ players. Coming hard upon the announcement that tin-pot fuhrer Tommy Robinson had left the English Defence League, Wilshire’s remarks give the unfortunate impression he is ready to challenge for the vacant leadership post:
"We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that. The only people who should play for England are English people. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I'm not going to play for Spain."
 From such evidence one can only conclude that Wilshire has all the awareness and media-savvy of Godfrey Bloom on PCP. At the civil partnership ceremony of two black lesbians. From Poland. Arsene Wenger must be shitting kittens.
 
What is most striking – lazy stereotypes of national footballing cultures aside – is how little ambition Wilshire seems to have. England he tells us are “brave” and “tackle hard”, not like those “technical” Spaniards. This is what we “have to remember”. Yes, exactly. You wouldn’t want England to play like Spain now, would you? Who wants to play brilliant football or win trophies, eh? Never mind the inconvenient truth that the last two times England have reached the semi-final of a major championship – Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 – the team was packed with technically proficient, attack minded players. Wilshire is at least right about one thing: even if he lived in the country for five years he wouldn’t play for Spain. This, however, has nothing to do with his patriotism and everything to do with not being good enough.
 
The context for his meanderings was the explosive debut of Manchester United teenager Adnan Januzaj, who scored both goals in the Reds 2-1 victory over Sunderland. Januzaj is eligible to play international football for a number of different countries, and could theoretically play for England at some future point, assuming he were to meet the five year residency requirement. To date the voice of Januzaj has been missing from the whole affair. To the best of my knowledge he has made neither a statement nor a decision about his international future, although it appears he has so far spurned the advances of Belgium. It may well be that he wants to represent Turkey, Serbia or Albania. There is certainly no indication that he wishes to commit to an international career of scraping qualification for major championships before exiting, via penalty shoot-out, in the early knockout rounds.
 
Wilshire subsequently took to Twitter claiming, rather unconvincingly, he was not referring to this particular case. Later he received support from Alan Shearer – a kiss of death if ever there was one - who said, “I am of the opinion that to be English you should be born in England.” What this means for the likes of current England internationals Raheem Sterling and Wilfred Zaha, born in Jamaica and the Ivory Coast respectively, remains to be seen. Maybe Wilshire and Shearer are of the view that ex-England stars John Barnes and Terry Butcher, neither of whom was born in England, should hand back the combined 156 caps they won during their careers.
 
It is unclear whether or not Wilshire intended his sound-bites to come across in such a crass manner. I, for one, would be surprised if the lad has investigated the concept of nationality in a globalised world with significant intellectual rigour. But the very fact that these comments were ill-thought through demonstrates how pervasive the growing narrative of them and us has become in English football. Or to put it somewhat more accurately: the narrative that there are too many of them in the English game and not enough of us.
 
This is the line being peddled by the likes of new FA head honcho, Greg Dyke, although the man who once controlled the BBC is more careful in his use of language than your average footballer. It is the argument being pushed by Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, the two recently retired Premiership stalwarts now paid to air their views on Sky Sports. It seems they remain totally oblivious to the fact that their paymaster is an Australian with greater influence over the English game than anyone from this country. The icing on the cake was provided by the millionaire ex-pat Vinny Jones recently bemoaning that England has become “unrecognisable” from the country of his youth.
 
The trouble is that Wilshire pronouncements are more insidious than the standard racist line of “They took our jobs!” It seems to suggest that players from different countries possess certain innate qualities. Moreover, in saying he would never represent a national team other than that of the country of his birth, there is an implication that England players born beyond these shores would not give their all when wearing the three lions. This is exactly the kind of crap racists once threw at John Barnes. And there is just the faintest echo of the notorious Tebbit test.
 
In 1990 Norman Tebbit, a hard-line Conservative backbencher, proposed a way in which the loyalties of Asian immigrants living in the UK could be tested: who did they cheer for when England played cricket against India or Pakistan? He dressed his miserable racism in the language of “integration” but the implication was clear enough. People born abroad could never be considered truly British – whatever that might be. It provoked a memorable response from the veteran Labour left-winger, Dennis Skinner. When asked which team he would cheer on he replied simply, “Anyone but England.”
 
This is not to suggest a line of moral equivalence between Tebbit and Wilshire. Tebbit’s was the considered, deliberate intervention of a vile racist; Wilshire‘s an unpleasant, knee-jerk reaction. But the cricket reference is apt because it was left to Kevin Pietersen to take Wilshire to task. The South-African born England batsman castigated the footballer, tweeting, "Interested to know how you define foreigner...? Would that include me, Strauss, Trott, Prior, Justin Rose, Froome, Mo Farah? Same difference. It's about representing your country! IN ANY SPORT!"
 
Pietersen has a point. What’s more he could have picked scores of other sportsmen and women as examples. The worlds of cricket, rugby, athletics and cycling have adjusted to a world where the cosy certainty of national identity is long gone – if those times ever really existed at all. People have dual-nationalities, parents from opposite sides of the globe. They are displaced by war and famine, or simply travel to find work. By comparison football, once again, seems to be struggling to come to terms with this reality.
 
At least England Under-21 boss Gareth Southgate is aware of the issue “We have lots of boys in our squad who were not born here, whose families have fled here. There are some wonderful stories and they are all incredibly proud to play for England. I'm torn with it. The world is changing. People move and work abroad. It is important to know why someone wants to play for you." Wilshire should pay heed to the former England defender, if for no other reason than out of respect for his international teammates Sterling and Zaha. After a blistering start to the Premiership campaign the Arsenal youngster has one foot in next year’s World Cup squad. Unfortunately he currently has his other foot in his mouth. He would do well to remove the offending appendage post haste.