At a time of hyper-nationalistic politics, professional football remains a peculiar embodiment of what a post-nationalist, hyper-commercial, free-market, identity-fluid society would look like
Some years ago I was sitting at a restaurant in Munich, dining with friends, when I suddenly noticed the waiter’s uncanny resemblance to German footballer Lukas Podolski. “Hey man!" I said to the extremely pleasant waiter, “you look like Lukas Podoslki…"
Immediately, I felt a sharp jolt of pain as a friend kicked my shins under the table. “Dude…," he whispered, “shut up…."
The waiter merely smiled and quickly vanished through some doors into the chaos of the kitchen and a busy night’s service. “Dude," my friend said, making sure the waiter was out of earshot, “many people in Germany don’t like him. Don’t say things like that."
I was flabbergasted. How can you not like Podolski? There isn’t a more likeable footballer in the sport. But it turned out that my friend was not wrong. I later found out that several players in the German football team had, and still have, what can only be called an exceedingly casual sense of nationality. Podolski himself had once said that in his heart he felt more Polish than German. Other players such as Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and Jérôme Boateng are well known for not joining in during the German national anthem before matches.
Of course we must keep in mind that Germany has a peculiar history when it comes to symbols of patriotism such as the flag and the anthem. However, take a broader view of world football and the picture that emerges of national identity and nationality is quite interesting. At a time when many people feel that we live in a period of hyper-nationalistic politics, professional football remains a peculiar embodiment of what a post-nationalist, hyper-commercial, free-market, identity-fluid society would look like. A society in which nationality is just one of a patchwork of allegiances that players adopt and adapt to suit their ambitions. To a degree that is, arguably, unique.
Take the recent case of Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. The 24-year-old explosive winger has already played professional football for some seven years. And for much of that period he has been seen as a young player with tremendous talent who just hasn’t quite delivered on that potential. But in the second half of this season, Zaha has come alive for his club at an opportune moment. After winning just four out of the first 23 English Premier League matches this season, Palace have now won four of the next six. That includes last weekend’s win against the side that appears to be winning this season at a canter—Chelsea. Part of this Palace renaissance has been because of Zaha’s form.
Which is why there was much consternation in England late last year when Zaha wrote to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) to switch his national allegiance from England to the Ivory Coast. Zaha was born in the Ivory Coast, but moved to England when he was 4. Fifa rules allow him to play for both countries. A few days ago, Gareth Southgate, manager of the England national squad, told the press that he had tried and failed to convince Zaha to play for England. There has been some hemming and hawing since. Daniel Harris has an excellent piece in the NewStatesman eviscerating the objections.
Who knows? In some years, Zaha might yet play for England. If it suits him. That is because football, fuelled by many different forms of greed and an endless hunger for success at the club and national levels, has successfully reduced nationality to a question of paperwork. Thus, there are no eyebrows raised anywhere when brothers play against each other in internationals. Granit and Taulant Xhaka played against each other in the Switzerland versus Albania tie at Euro 2016. In fact, that match has to be a watershed moment in the history of nations and nationhood. At least half-a-dozen players in each team were eligible to play for the opposition.
Indeed professional football, at least in Europe but also in many other places, makes a stellar case for the complex combination of challenges and opportunities that emerge out of migration, refugees, and human movement of all kinds. Would English football be half as enjoyable or commercially viable if it wasn’t for the legions of foreign players who turn out for their teams? Would Swiss football be anywhere near as successful if it wasn’t for the Albanian migrants who make up its heart and soul?
And it works for players too. Like Zaha, other multi-ethnic players also often drive countries into bidding against each other for their services. Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, currently out on loan at Sunderland, appeared to be eligible to play for a whole host of nations before committing himself to Belgium.
In some sense, and this might appear anathema to some, nations appear no more profound organizations than clubs in such circumstances. Nationality too then becomes just a factor in the complex decisions that players make about their careers. And all this in a marketplace that is remarkably free. As Zaha shows, on the football pitch the Ivory Coast can be as enticing a prospect as England. And isn’t that just great.