“Shall I crack any of these old jokes, master, at which the audience never fail to laugh?”
Did you hear the one about Emile Heskey?
“A prisoner on Death Row in Utah has been allowed to choose his firing squad. He has chosen Heskey.”
How about this one…
“Robert Green faced over 100 shots in training today without conceding a goal. Tomorrow, he and Heskey will train with the rest of the squad.”
Type his name into Google and via the second option down you’ll be treated to a veritable smorgasbord of similar Heskey-themed funnies. Consult any tabloid and you’ll see a host of England players ‘scoring’ in one way or another. Heskey’s drought is perfect comic timing. Despite an international career which spanned over a decade, the Aston Villa striker was a constant target of derision from an expectant public who found his England inclusions most perplexing.
They will not need to ponder any more because Heskey’s days as the punch line are behind him. After retiring from international football, Heskey will enjoy a reprieve. He will no longer be scrutinised with the same intensity and he will no longer take the flak for the perennially ‘underachieving’ England. Kevin Davies, this particular baton and the jester’s hat await your services.
For England, he was surrounded by a plethora of supremely talented, apathetic egomaniacs but Heskey tended to swim against the tide. He simply wasn’t inhaling the same air of confidence which John Terry et al enjoyed. Criticising his performance was made all the easier as a result.
He will not don the England shirt again but under new Aston Villa boss Gérard Houllier he could be about to enjoy something of a renaissance. The England monkey is off his back and relieving that pressure can only assist Heskey’s confidence. Who is better to exploit this than the man who has shown more faith in him than anyone? Houllier broke Liverpool’s transfer fee to sign him back when he was manager on Merseyside and he was a regular fixture during the Frenchman’s tenure.
There is also the all too familiar path he seems to be currently treading. Previously eroded by David Beckham, Peter Crouch and Owen Hargreaves; being a target of abuse from England fans actually seems to do some good. The Beckham story has been retold on countless occasions, Hargreaves was one of the better performers at the 2006 World Cup and Crouch has one of the best strike-rates in world football.
With Houllier installed, Heskey has already started his own mini revival. Two goals in as many games drew comic gasps from the football community but the way Villa collapsed after he went off against Spurs showed just how pivotal he could be to Houllier’s Villa.
Stliyan Petrov this week claimed England will miss Emile Heskey. The Bulgarian may have been wide of the mark (just like Heskey! see how easy it is!) but Heskey can still offer something to his club. He may not have found his niche within the England squad but with Villa and under Houllier, the butt of the jokes can flourish this year.
“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”
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.
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.
“It looked to me as if the English have gone backwards into the bad old times of kick and rush”
Although he may have his detractors, Jamie Carragher is a very intelligent man and any interview with him is refreshingly candid. Last week he spoke with the Daily Mail about a variety of issues but the ones which were most intriguing were his thoughts on the state of the English game both at international level and at the grass-roots. The Liverpool defender believes the two are intertwined. He moans that at international level “there isn’t that spell of keeping the ball, just slowing the game down.” Then he points to the deficiencies of youth football in this country:
“My son is playing now and, the first thing in England is that you want your lad to get stuck in. Whereas a Spanish kid, you want him to be skilful.”
Beckenbauer’s ‘kick and rush’ comments may not have been wide of the mark after all. At the time, those within the England camp rubbished the claims but Carragher’s thoughts provide at least some evidence that the mentality in this country is way behind other nations.
It is not that England doesn’t produce players capable of carrying out Carragher’s wishes. If the F.A. wondered if the Scouser’s words should be taken onboard, they were left in little doubt when a certain Mancunian echoed Carragher’s sentiments with a masterful display last Monday night. Actions often speak louder than words and Paul Scholes’ performance against Newcastle was a delight to behold. It was a vintage display and a brilliant advert for maintaining possession, creating chances and completely controlling a football match. At the same time it was all very un-British.
The World Cup statistics show Carragher’s fears are founded. Looking at the pass completion percentages, England players don’t match-up well against other countries most notably the eventual champions Spain. England’s percentages, Frank Lampard 78%, Gareth Barry 75%, James Milner 65% and Steven Gerrard 64%, are pitiful when compared with their Spanish counterparts, Sergio Busquets 88%, Cesc Fàbregas 84%, Xabi Alonso 81% and Xavi 81%. Other major internationals have far more favourable stats too, Felipe Melo 90%, Gilberto Silva 86% and Javier Mascherano 80%. Even the more advanced players like Kaká 76%, Robinho 76% and Leo Messi 72% havefar better ball retention skills than England’s own Wayne Rooney 62%.
The only ‘major’ country who had similar stats to England was Germany, Bastian Schweinsteiger 76%, Sami Khedira 76% and Mesut Özil 71%. But consider that most of Germany’s goals and chances came from their electrifying counter attacks rather than prolonged build ups.
Paul Scholes didn’t travel to South Africa and his absence was clearly missed. As pointed out by Opta and on this Manchester United blog, Scholes was the Premier League’s most accurate passer with an 89.58% completion rate last year.
So when under intense pressure from an expectant media and fans, it seems the English players in South Africa did revert to type, the style Beckenbauer labelled ‘kick-and-rush’. Carragher himself acknowledged this:
“John Terry knocked it long to Emile Heskey into the box and I was thinking: ‘You wouldn’t have done that for Chelsea. You’d have passed it straight to Ashley Cole and just started playing again’.”
Certainly the players should know better. Enough of them play at the highest level to appreciate the importance of long periods of possession. But the system these players were brought up in is also flawed. The Spanish and the Germans have evolved but the English seem to be stuck in their traditional ways. Hard-tackling, lung busting midfielders are everywhere in England but we produce too few players of Scholes’ ilk.
Carragher’s comments this past week show that there is a concern among the professionals. Now the F.A. must look to rectify this at the very grass roots of the game.