Soccer and the Death of Nations?

Occasionally, sports and popular media inadvertently highlight global trends. These stories link heady academic concepts to activities derisively considered “beneath” the Ivory Tower (depending on the observer of course). More pointedly, I think these stories provide a useful illustration of (sometimes) unnecessarily abstract geographic concepts. Today’s post combines two of my favorite geographic topics: soccer and identity and how both are affected by migration (for an excellent read on this field of study I recommend: How Soccer Explains the World: an Unlikely theory of globalization).
Z Geography is no friend of nationalism, to honestly declare my bias, so I read the comments of a footballer with a mixture of academic interest and irritation. As the BBC reported back in October 2013, the footballer argued that “if you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English” and that “the only people who should play for England are English people.” For added context, these comments came as an Under-21 footballer decides who he’ll (potentially) represent at the international level. As the article points out, the footballer (who is, presumably, ethnically Kosovar-Albanian) qualifies to play for Belgium (place of birth), Serbia (as Kosovo is not recognized by the United Nations), Albania (through parents), and Turkey (through grandparents). The footballer would potentially be able to play for England, if he first lived in that place for 5 years.
The “English” footballer issued these public comments presumably to state exactly who he thinks an English person is. The problem as it so often is with public comments, is the qualification. The “English” footballer in question later qualified that he didn’t mean people ONLY people born in England but also people who immigrated to the country as children. He implies that those came to the…uhh…area of England “when [they’re] an adult” aren’t English. To him they only came for a passport.
Ah nationalism. What the heck is a nation anyway? Isn’t it the same as a state?
Ask a political geographer the difference between nation and state and you’ll likely get an hour lecture on the difference. For our purposes, a “nation” is an imagined community populated by individuals with ties to an ill-defined territory that is often NOT tied to specific state (i.e. country boundaries). A “state” is an entity with sovereign administration over a defined geographic area. The two are not equivalent.
Take, for example, the state of Belgium. That entity, a parliamentary republic comprised of courts, police, public schools and hospitals, and so on, has complete sovereignty within the state’s boundaries. That state is peopled by many more nations than just the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are French-speaking Walloons, Germans, and a myriad others (and these are just ethnic identities!). Let me be clear, the nation-state has, and will always be, a myth (and if you say Japan then I invite you to send your thoughts to the people of Okinawa, the Ainu, and the Brazilians).
Back to football, what does this sport have to do with the nation? Nothing and everything. Obviously, these teams (to include the Olympic teams) are representations of something, perhaps we should call them symbols? They’re a rallying point for people. The ultimate question, of course, is who people?
Yes, the “English.” But who are the English? These comments point to a debate over what constitutes an Englishman or Englishwoman. Is it birth? Is it period of residency? Or is it something else? Let’s be clear – anti-immigrant attitudes are just as prevalent in “England” (just ask the Normans… errr… Saxons…. errr.. Celts!) as they are elsewhere.
This footballer, a public figure, is saying what is on the minds of many “English”, some of whom feel exactly as he does. They even have their own political party! In a world where international migration is the norm for families in a variety of income groups, neophobia/xenophobia/racism is bound to crop up. We would be lying to ourselves if we thought that certain public figures don’t share these sentiments.
Is England dying? Hardly. Whether the immigrants an locals, like it or not, the idea of what constitutes “England” and the “English” is changing. Immigrants clinging to the “home culture” will still adapt to their new homes and locals resisting immigrant influence will be sorely disappointed. Thus, the concept of the “English” national team needs to adapt with the times.
Z Geography’s solution is to reconceptualize what the symbol, the England national team stands for. It doesn’t just some narrow definition of English based on visual markers (race, class, ethnicity, language, religion), it includes everyone, locals, immigrants old and new, who feel some significant tie to the people, places, and experiences within that area. In effect, we should turn the symbolism from the people to the place – much like local sporting clubs have done as they opened up to players from elsewhere.
A complete radical solution would be for the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to coalesce into an actual United Kingdom team (oh how naive Z Geography!).
Post Script:
Just in case my American readers get any funny ideas, our own World Cup team has no less than 4 players born internationally, in Germany and Norway.
Z Geography is willing to admit that the England/Wales/Northern Ireland/Scotland issue is murky in terms of football. Wikipedia has an explanation of why there are four separate “national” teams for one country. The answer is the curious development of the body governing football. There is no United Kingdom squad because there is no United Kingdom Football Association, there is a separate Scottish Football Association, Football Association of Wales, and Irish Football Association (now only for Northern Ireland).

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