Connect in the back of the net

Greg Dyke, the relatively new chairman of the FA, has been quite busy this week. As he enters the third month in his position, Dyke has been tasked with setting up a new commission that will be charged with improving the development of future English youngsters as well as overseeing the build-up to the two crucial World Cup qualifiers with Montenegro and Poland.

If Dyke has been involved in Roy Hodgson’s preparations, he hasn’t been notable, instead involved in his own sub-plot surrounding the growing controversy of Adnan Januzaj.

It is somewhat ironic that in the week before a pair of matches that carry substantial significance, it is not an Englishman, nor a Pole, nor a Montenegrin that has dominated the headlines. Instead it is a Belgian teenager, born in Brussels to Kosovan- Albanian parents, who burst onto the scene last Saturday evening with two goals to direct Manchester United to victory over Sunderland.

However it wasn’t his goals nor his impact that have got everybody talking, it is his eligibility to play for England, amongst several other countries, that has opened such a pressing issue.

Analysing his performance against Sunderland from the comfort of the Match of the Day sofa, Hodgson claimed England have been monitoring his progress, “There’s no doubt that he’s a real talent and we have our eyes on him but a lot will have to be discussed,” he said, “Yes [he could play for England] down the line if he becomes naturalised or if he becomes a home-grown product.”

His club manager David Moyes certified the comments, “Yes. There is some way he has a chance of qualifying for England through residency.”

It is important to pause for a second in order to appreciate the absurdity of what was being said on Saturday evening. They were talking of a teenager who had enjoyed the majority of his footballing education over in Belgium, playing at Anderlecht, before he cropped up on the radar of Manchester United at a skills session, making the move to Old Trafford at the age of 16.

Before then he held no tie to the country, no English parentage, no English influence on his family blood-line, but yet a loophole that would allow him to play for England had presented itself and it appeared that the FA’s hierarchy were determined to push it through.

It seemed like the FA and those involved with the England team had refused to acknowledge the lunacy of pursuing Januzaj’s services in favour of pragmatism. There is little doubt of the teenager’s talent, rated so highly in the corridors of Carrington that Moyes has seen little issue in throwing him into his first-team squad at such a tender age.

His display at Sunderland, devoid of fear, graced with balance, energy and imagination, suggested he will have a very bright future ahead. Yet, those traits and skills were taught and learned in Brussels, not Manchester, it would promote a great unease watching Januzaj playing in the white of the three lions should the FA get their way.

That is a belief that would not take an amount of jingoism or even xenophobia to cultivate, just a degree of rational thought. That is what Jack Wilshere used when he was asked about the situation on Tuesday.

“If you’ve lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play. It doesn’t mean you can play for that country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain. For me an English player should play for England really,” said the Arsenal midfielder, inviting intense debate and gross misunderstanding of what he was referring to.

The stories of Wilfried Zaha, born in Ivory Coast and moved to England aged 4, Raheem Sterling, Jamaica born but moved to England aged 5 and Saido Berahino, the Congo refugee who moved to England aged 10, were all used in reply without any real thought.

These were players who had been properly naturalised, just like Mo Farah, the long-distance runner who migrated here as a toddler, assimilating, learning and being coached from an age young enough to develop through the national system.

It was Arsene Wenger who claimed the most important age of youth development was between five and 12, the ages Berahino, Sterling and Zaha enjoyed in England, unlike Januzaj who passed completely through that stage in Belgium.

Wilshere wasn’t objecting to any player who had come here as a child, settled into school, learnt, watched their parents pay taxes, he was perfectly happy for them to play for England, like Wayne Rooney, Stan Collymore and Harry Redknapp had all agreed this week.

England and Januzaj isn’t the first time a national side has tried to push the boundaries of nationalism back, Portugal granted Brazilian-born Deco citizenship and a place in their team after he arrived in the country aged 19.

Luis Figo expressed his ire, saying “if you’re born Chinese, well you have to play for China.” Simultaneously to England’s association with Januzaj, Spain have approached Diego Costa, Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian-born striker, about playing for La Roja after he was granted Spanish citizenship in the summer. Even the best in the world are not exempt from altering the rule-book.

Costa, like Januzaj, arrived in his current country aged 16 but has at least proved his talent in La Liga by scoring 8 goals in 10 games so far this season. Vincent Del-Bosque sees Costa as a way of solving his problem at centre-forward and is exploring the rules to make it happen motivated purely by self-interest.

England are too, but with a player who has started just one game at the highest level and, even if the rules do allow him to play and he chooses England, won’t be able to be capped for another five years. It is a veiled admission from the FA that indigenous youngsters are not quite good enough and the net is best spread wider to ensure the talent pool does not suffer as a result.

Dyke, pausing for a couple of minutes this week as he roved around staffing his new commission, gave his backing to a player of Januzaj’s talent and back-story to be eligible to play for England, seemingly unable to realise the contradiction of his quest for better youth production and more chances to be granted to them.

Since inheriting the helm of the Football Association from David Bernstein in the summer, the former head of the BBC has bemoaned the ever-declining stream of English players in the Premier League and has spent time forming a ten-strong band of experts, including Dario Gradi and Glenn Hoddle, to solve the problem.

Yet, at the same time, he is encouraging the further integration of European youngsters who have learned their trade away from England to come over here and gain a place in his national side. It is a ludicrous conflict of interest and you don’t have to be ignorantly jingoistic to figure that out.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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