Home > Football > Why Mikel Arteta Shouldn’t and Won’t Be Called Up For England

Why Mikel Arteta Shouldn’t and Won’t Be Called Up For England

“If one day the opportunity comes obviously I would have to consider it very seriously”

Even with six goal thrashings, transfer deadline day looming and the vacant managerial position at Aston Villa, the England team never seems to stray too far from the headlines these days. The World Cup post-mortem continues with the future a hot topic for discussion.

Despite the fallings of Italian coach Fabio Capello, it seems the latest answer will also come from abroad. England are not just hoping to acquire inspiration from world champions Spain, they are also hoping to acquire their unwanted personnel.

Spanish-born midfielder Mikel Arteta has announced he would seriously consider representing England should they choose to select him. Arteta qualifies for England due to this FIFA ruling which states you can acquire a new nationality if:

“He has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association”

Arteta would contemplate playing for England

After arriving in 2005, Arteta ticks that box and his name is now firmly in discussions regarding the next England squad.

The concept of nationality is a murky one. In the ever-growing, multi-cultural society we live in, nationality boundaries are blurred. I have no problem with a player representing a country if he has a biological link or if he has spent five years living on the territory BEFORE the age of 18, but the current ruling which Arteta may utilise throws up some serious issues.

The English don’t need to look far to see the benefits of acquiring ‘international’ talent. Anyone who has ever consumed a Sunday roast, performed a morris dance or listened intently to the queen’s speech has been considered for selection by the England Cricket Board. Kevin Pietersen, Michael Lumb, Craig Kieswetter, Matt Prior, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Eoin Morgan were all born outside the country. Though the key difference here is they all have direct English relations (excluding Kieswetter who has a Scottish father), usually parents and in some cases grandparents. Mikel Arteta does not.

The football team itself have fielded players not born in England before. But they at least have an affiliation with the country, be it through blood (Owen Hargreaves) or through a move during childhood (John Barnes, Terry Butcher). Again, Arteta matches neither criterion.

Other countries do expose this FIFA naturalisation ruling but not as many as believed. Brazilians Deco, Pepe and Liédson elected to play for Portugal after they had moved there to play club football.

France’s successful campaign in 1998 had its fair share of questionable cases but they didn’t expose the same rule Arteta may do. Patrick Vieira, born in Senegal moved to France at eight, Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly moved when he was four, Lilian Thuram and Christian Karembeu were born in French-ruled territories Guadeloupe and New Caledonia.  The rest were born in France.

Indeed the Germans are frequently cited as an example of acquiring talent which isn’t strictly their own. However Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski have strong German ties through their families, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil and Jérôme Boateng were all born in Germany and Marko Marin has been in Germany since he was two. Only Brazilian-born Cacau’s situation is similar to Arteta’s.  

Germany and France possess players with different ethnic identities, but the country they represent has been a part of their lives for many years either through blood or residency.

Arteta’s proposed inclusion has many supporters. Dejected with England’s World Cup showing, Arteta is a clear upgrade on what England already have. He is technically sound, adept at preserving possession and has a good understanding of the Premier League. But he simply ISN’T English. In fact, he isn’t even English based on FIFA’s rulings, he is British.

Desailly moved to France at the age of four

There are also wider ramifications should Arteta choose to ‘become’ English. Arteta has UK citizenship meaning he is also eligible for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If these countries elect to choose anyone who has a UK passport, Scotland and Wales could soon become England’s ‘B’ team. It is this conundrum which is also likely to be the sticking point in any call-up for Arteta. Nacho Novo found this out when he declared he would opt to play for Scotland should they so desire his services. SFA chief Gordon Smith said at the time:

“We have had discussions with the other associations in the past couple of days and I’ve found out that everyone is adhering to our agreement, and that, subsequently, we’re all going down the line that we will use bloodline as the basis for eligibility.”

You only need to look at the debacle that is Great Britain’s 2012 team to see how important the distinction between the four countries is to these associations. England’s loyalty to the gentlemen’s agreement will be tested this time and Arteta would be a precedent-setting pick which would break down the barriers between the individual British countries.

There are other dilemmas with this current rule. English clubs already take foreign players in at a young age, for example Manchester United have just signed Dutch teenager Gyliano van Velzen from Ajax. There is nothing to stop England effectively buying in and nurturing their future international team. Suddenly international football would develop a transfer system where the major countries could simply inherit the best young talent as they do at club level.

Players should have to reach one of two criteria to represent a country at international level. One would be that the player has a biological relation from that country, mother, father or grandparent. The second would be that the player had resided in the country for five years before the age of 18 to avoid countries farming in the top international talent to call their own when they mature. This rule would include Marcel Desailly, a child who immersed himself in French culture and was brought up in the French football system. However it would exclude Mikel Arteta, Manuel Almunia and Carlo Cudicini, players who were born and raised outside of England and whose only relation to the country is their current adult residency here.

  1. Rob
    August 23, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I don’t really see the problem in the case of Arteta. The “5 years before 18” idea seems as arbitrary as the “5 years after 18” rule that’s currently in place. All it does is shift the incentives in favour of those who’ve lived in the country at a young age, and away from those who come to the country later, though they may be just as committed to the country as the young’uns. Why should one’s date of entry into a country matter? Does “I grew up here, had my first snog here” really matter more than “I’ve busted my ass for 5 years here, built a life and a family here?” I think time spent in a country is important, as it’s a primary signal of commitment to that country. But whether that time is spent between ages 11-16 or 23-28 doesn’t seem terribly relevant to me, if international football is what we’re talking about.

    On the biological issue, Mario Balotelli has Italian foster parents, and grew up there, but isn’t ethnically Italian – his biological parents are Ghanaian. A lot of Italians don’t accept him as an Italian, in the same way you say Arteta “simply ISN’T English.” Yet Arteta is a UK resident, knows the language well enough (better than Capello at any rate), and seems to be committed and willing to play for the England shirt (something which can’t always be said of true-born England players). What it sounds like is “he wants to play with us, and he’s good enough, but he doesn’t look/sound/act enough like us.” Too bad, I guess.

    Spain utilised a similar (if not the same) rule to call up Marcos Senna, with stunning results – culminating in victory at EURO 2008. With no family ties to the country, and with his playing career as his only link to Spain, he didn’t seem to have a commitment problem, playing in a position that requires plenty of it.

    The Spanish don’t complain that allowing foreign players to play the Spanish national team, or in La Liga, hinders their youth development. Their youth development continues, regardless of FIFA rules. Young Spanish players (Iker Muniain and Sergio Canales being the most notable examples last season) get first-team chances in La Liga, not because of restrictions on foreigners, but because they’re considered good enough to compete against more established players – local or foreign.

    In contrast, English folks seem to think that they just need to get the foreigners out, or limit their involvement, and then they’ll magically see youth players blossom. But that just betrays deep-seated fear of competition. And in some cases, it betrays a far less attractive attitude than fear.

    I’m not sure how an “X years before 18” rule will do anything to limit the transfer market in young international talent. As you said, this happens already at the club level, and it’s a feature of globalisation in sport – one which isn’t wholly negative, since a lot of kids get opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty, which they may not otherwise have had. To my mind, a switch to “5 years before 18” would exacerbate the problem you identified, skewing the market more towards the acquisition of talented 12-year olds rather than talented 16-year olds, so that the countries can get them to fulfil the 5-year requirement. I’m not sure you’d be best pleased with such an outcome.

    A more constructive solution, I think, would be for the player to have lived for X years continuously in the country, regardless of his age at the end of that X year period, where X ≥ 5.

  2. August 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for the reply, you raise some good points.

    The thing I find fascinating about nationalities is that people seem to have varying opinions dependent on their backgrounds. I have a Welsh father, an English mother and was born in England (just). However I feel an affinity to Wales (more so than England in football terms, though that is the result of several factors). I remember having a discussion with my friends on dual-nationalities. The two of us who have Welsh blood-lines argued that you could have dual-nationalities but those who didn’t disagreed with the idea.

    I’ve never lived abroad but if I was to move to America now I still don’t think I’d feel ‘American’ or feel it was right to represent America in sporting circles in five years time. Perhaps if I did move I’d feel differently.

    There is nothing to stop Arteta moving to Italy and playing for them in five years. I just feel that somewhat cheapens the allure of international football. Cricket has become the same way. Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter all have relations here but they’ve essentially transferred here to become internationals. Football won’t go that way just yet because international cricket is so far ahead of county cricket, in football the opposite is true. But the fact that there is little stopping it worries me slightly.

    I think the X years before 18 rule does have more weight to it simply because players cannot sign contracts before the age of 16. Though it wouldn’t shock or surprise me if clubs started acquiring 12 year olds. For me though, it’s different for Balotelli and Desailly because they moved to their adopted countries at an early age, they were brought up in that country’s football system. Arteta, Almunia, Cacau etc have simply moved to further their club careers rather than international careers.

    I can’t recall if there was any uproar about Senna at the time but some in Portugal did oppose the Deco/Pepe/Liedson moves. I imagine Spain would have been very happy after Senna was so instrumental in Euro 2008 but imagine the uproar had Fabregas chosen to play for England rather than Spain? Is that fair? Spain’s youth development is excellent but I wonder if Munian/Canales etc would have seen first team football frequently if La Liga clubs didn’t have their debts and had the money of English clubs?

    The trouble with people in this country is, they want the best players, the best clubs and the best league. Yet they also expect their national team to be the best too. I don’t subscribe to the theory that the influx of foreigners is ruining the national game, if anything, it helps. Most of England’s top players play regularly in the Champions League. If anything, more English players should move abroad to learn different football perspectives but I don’t think there should be less foreigners. But I do think the Premier League takes priority over the national team (winter break being the best example).

    As for your constructive solution, that is the rule in place at the minute. Haven’t heard FIFA planning any changes recently and if it wasn’t for the bloodline gentleman agreement that the home-nations have got going on, I do think England would call up Arteta.

  3. Rob
    August 24, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    That’s a great point about one’s opinions being dependent on one’s background. In my case, I’m a mixture of Spanish, Chinese, English, Indian and Trinidadian blood, and I think that’s definitely shaped my outlook on the issue as well.

    And it’s true, most of us wouldn’t feel right with playing for a different country from the one in which we were born/grew up. And for players who feel the same way, they’re not obligated to play for their adopted countries. But there are a few players who genuinely feel an affinity for their adopted nations and have positive contributions to make to the national team. Nobody’s suggesting that any and every talented foreigner should be automatically called up to their host country’s national squad after a 5-year stint, merely that they should be eligible for selection. Managerial and player discretion still come into play before any call-ups can be made. If Fabregas CHOSE to play for England, sure it’d cause an uproar (in Spain), but I don’t think too many English folks would mind – apart from Gerrard/Lampard fanboys, I guess. Not everything that causes a fan revolt is necessarily a bad idea.

    I totally agree with you on the cricket example, especially since the England team has taken advantage of the rule to such an enormous extent – though that has its advantages, because the name “Dmitri Mascarenas” is fucking awesome. But I think that in almost all countries (except India), the pool of local football talent relative to the size of the national squad, will be larger than is the equivalent pool of cricket talent compared to the size of the national squad. Because of that, I think the “foreign players rule” is much less of an issue in football than in cricket. I think the slippery slope is less likely to come into play because of the relatively larger group of local players from which to choose.

    On the Muniain/Canales situations, the money probably is an issue generally, because TV money is wildly (and predictably) skewed towards Barça and Real. But in the cases of those two players, I think it’s more a matter of “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” in the same way that Jack Rodwell gets picked for Everton. Athletic Bilbao (Muniain’s club) is actually an interesting example here, because it’s a club that has a Basques-only policy – all its players must be from the Basque country. No foreign players allowed, and “foreign” includes “non-Basque Spanish.” Yet they are a decent mid-table club (with a few recent relegation scares), reached the Copa del Rey final in 2009, and proudly have never been relegated from La Liga. So that’s a club at the extreme opposite of the globalisation spectrum, but one that’s been reasonably successful nonetheless. Imagine a club with a Cornish-only policy making the FA Cup final… magic of the Cup!

    Thanks for the reply, I’ve really been enjoying your blog.

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