Wednesday 13 December 2017

England's passport to future

Germany's success at integrating players has made England look at its own policy, writes Paul Hayward

When Fabio Capello was asked why the English system is failing to generate young players of the calibre of Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil, the England manager swivelled in his chair and raised four fingers. An innocuous question had touched a nerve.

"They [Germany] play players with different passports. Khedira, Podolski, Ozil, Boateng," the England manager said. "Germany didn't produce good players for a long time. I spoke with Stuart [Pearce, the England under 21 manager] and the Germans have players coming from under 21. Technically, they are very good. We hope to find the same in England but you have to understand in Germany there are 70 million people. In England, there are 60 million but for me one of the reasons is that there are only 38% English players in the Premier League."

This bizarre and contentious answer suggests Germany crushed England 4-1 last Sunday in Bloemfontein because they have raided foreign talent pools. At least it made a change from blaming "tiredness" and the referee.

Capello is evidently unaware that England's cricket team could easily be renamed 'South Africa in Exile', or that English rugby's Riki Flutey turned out for the New Zealand Maori (the All Black second string) before pinning a red rose to his shirt and graduating to the British and Irish Lions.

But with this latest shimmy to deflect the blame Capello could yet start a move away from the mono-national make-up of the team he manages. Should England naturalise top young foreign players from the big Premier League clubs?

First, though, back to Germany. From Capello's list, Jerome Boateng was born to a German mother and Ghanaian father; Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were born in Poland. Ozil is the son of a Turkish gastarbeiter (guest worker); Khedira was born in Stuttgart to a Tunisian father and German mother. Cacau, meanwhile, is a Brazilian who acquired a German passport last spring.

Seeking clarification on their policy on integration, I asked Wolfgang Niersbach, the general secretary of the DFB, who said: "Situated in the very centre of Europe, there is no doubt that Germany has certain melting pot features, with people from many nationalities and of different ethnic backgrounds living together.

"Mesut Ozil, whose family has lived in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr area for three generations now, is a case in point. We know that many young players of Turkish descent preserve strong ties to the country of their fathers, so that when the time came for Mesut to decide which country to play for we deliberately refrained from exerting even the slightest pressure.

"The DFB has made integration a key item on its sports-political agenda, and quite a lot of young players are beginning to reward these efforts by declaring their preference for Germany, just like Ozil, Khedira, Boateng and many others."

While oversimplifying the German stance, Capello has expressed strong opposition to the idea that English football should follow cricket and rugby down the road of passport pragmatism. Owen Hargreaves remains a one-off. Born in Canada, to a Welsh mother and English father, Hargreaves came through the German system before declaring an allegiance to his current home.

The rule in the UK is that a visitor can apply for British citizenship after six years of residency, or three if they have a native spouse. England's void at left midfield, for instance, would be solved by the appropriation of Everton's Mikel Arteta, who represented Spain at U21 level but is now eligible to switch to his adopted country.

When Manuel Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, expressed an urge to become an honorary Englishman, the response was broadly hostile. Peter Schmeichel would have encountered less resistance. It may take a world-class youngster to dissolve this opposition. Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal at 16, seven years ago. If the English Football Association adopted a more opportunistic approach the best young imports could yet be reinvented as Englishmen and Britain's immigrant communities brought more into the fold.

"Some of the young players produced in the Premier League are Welsh and some are Irish but not English," Capello clattered on. "In the Premier League, 38% of English players; this is the big problem because other countries are 68, 69, 70%.

"At AC Milan when I was in the academy, we produced seven players who went through into the senior team but now there is no one. The same for Manchester United. You have to be lucky sometimes to have the moment when players are coming. At the moment there are none.

"Dave Richards [the Club England chairman] asked me what I thought about the next tournament and the young players we might have to bring through, like Adam Johnson. Joe Hart will play next season for a really important team."

For Capello to be citing Bobby Zamora as a solution to England's skills gap justifies the suspicion that 44 years of underachievement will stretch beyond half a century.

"There must be a good crop of kids out there, otherwise how would we have been so successful at those age levels?" asks Emile Heskey, not unreasonably. "James Milner has been promoted to the senior squad and done well. So I think the future is in good hands but I must admit when you don't see too many young English players in the Premier League you do become worried."


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