Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Boateng v Boateng - A sign of things to come

On Wednesday evening Germany play Ghana in World Cup Group D. It's quite possible that in this country the match will rather slip beneath the radar, dependant on the result of England's game against Slovenia earlier in the day. But there will be plenty of people around the world tuning in to watch the intriguing story of the Boateng brothers played out on the field.

Jerome Boateng of Germany may end up facing off against his half brother Kevin-Prince, who despite being born in Berlin has opted to play for Ghana in this World Cup. This is the first time that such close family members have appeared on opposite sides in a major international football tournament. The Cynical Challenge welcomes guest blogger Ewan Roberts, who argues that they will not be the last.

'The Germans are at it again', cried ITV commentator Peter Drury as Cacau added a fourth goal and Germany cruised past Australia in their World Cup opener last week. Funnily enough, Cacau is as German as Drury – although I have it on good authority that Drury looks rather dashing in lederhosen. Born and bred in Brazil, Cacau only became eligible for Germany last year through citizenship, at the age of 27.

Three of Germany’s four goals were scored by players who were eligible for other nations - Cacau (Brazil), Lucas Podolski (Poland) and Miroslav Klose (Poland) - while their star player, Mesut Özil, chose to represent Germany instead of Turkey. Additionally, Mario Gomez (Spain), Marko Marin (Bosnia), Andreas Beck (Russia), Sami Khedira (Tunisia), Piotr Trochowski (Poland), Serdar Tasci (Turkey), Jerome Boateng (Ghana) and Dennis Aogo (Nigeria) could have opted to play for a nation other than Germany. Nearly half Germany’s squad have foreign roots. In fact, Poland and Turkey are better represented than the former East Germany, whose sole flag bearer is Tony Kroos.

Welcome to the 21st Century of football – an age of cultural diversity and national mobility, or success hungry mercenaries?

Certainly the German squad is an accurate reflection of an increasingly diverse country. Cacau believes he represents the multicultural nature of German society – and with 1,278,424 foreigners taking German citizenship between 1995 and 2004, it is hard to argue with him. The legitimacy of Germany’s “foreign” talent is not in question, but the patriotism of some players is. Do players owe a duty of responsibility to the lesser nations from which they originate?

It is perhaps unsurprising that seven of Germany’s eleven foreign players would not be appearing at the World Cup had they elected to play for a different nation. Are players opting for personal glory over national pride?
The Germans are not the only team with players whose nationality is ambiguous. Over 100 players in South Africa this summer are eligible for another nation – approximately 1/6th of all players in the tournament. This includes players who: a) were born in a different country, b) qualify for another nation via parentage, and c) are naturalized citizens. Only seven counties have squads which include no players eligible for other nations.

75 players were born in a country other than the one they will represent in South Africa. In most instances, the players in question chose a football superpower rather than a minnow. Nations such DR Congo, Uzbekistan, Albania, Scotland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Suriname, Venezuela, Zaire and Cape Verde are being drained of talented footballers.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in a world in which nationality is flexible we should see a World Cup in which the same is true. Even England, whose team include no players directly eligible for other nations, are benefitting from this mobility. Prior to Viv Anderson’s landmark debut in 1978, England were as white as the shirts they donned – but two weeks ago they travelled to South Africa with nine black players, mostly products of years of immigration, largely from the Caribbean. Several teams are still being propped up by their status as former empires – England, France, and Portugal. In fact, it could be argued that Portugal’s greatest ever player, Eusébio, is actually Africa’s greatest player, having been born in Mozambique. However, there would be another challenger for such a title: France’s Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane considers himself “first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman”. His decision to represent France would appear to contradict this affirmation of Algerian national identity, but Algeria’s civil unrest, and footballing inferiority (more so relative to France) would have been Zidane’s primary motivator. In order to compete at the highest level, and cement his credentials as one of the world’s best players, Zidane shunned an Algerian side that had not qualified for the World Cup since 1986. Many players, sadly, still take this view. Though there is a growing trend of Algerians “returning home”.

Today, Algeria find themselves in the curious position of having 17 French-born players, eight of whom have played for the French youth team. Are more Algerians picking their nationality with their heart rather than their head, or is it simply a case that most aren’t good enough to play for France? It is more likely to be the latter. There is more than a hint of irony regarding the surprise exclusion of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema from the French side: both are Algerian.

Zidane and the Algerian side provide examples of two sides of a complicated coin. Zidane’s decision was influenced by a desire for personal glory, but also a state of national unrest. How many of the Algerian squad would have chosen to play for Algeria ahead of France if they had a realistic opportunity of representing Les Bleus? How many would have chosen to play for Algeria if the country was still in a state of extreme unrest? Probably very few, if any.

France’s procurement of non-French talent is not limited to Algeria. The World Cup winning “rainbow” French team of 1998 included Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff (of Armenia), Lilian Thuram (French Caribbean), Bixente Lizarazu (Basque), Patrick Vieira (Senegal) and others. Twelve years on and little has changed. France’s primary talent pool remains (though is not confined to) Africa, with ten foreign born or foreign descended players.

Increasingly, players are asked to choose between their heritage, ancestry and national pride, or trophies and personal glory. Some players “swap” nations in order to gain a second chance to play international football. While that is reasonable motivation, there is opportunity for exploitation.

In 2003, Equatorial Guinea were ranked 178th in the world. The appointment of Spanish coach Oscar Engonga began a process of nationality “scouting”, with Equatorial Guinea scouring the world, though predominantly Spain, for players with ties (however tenuous) to Equatorial Guinea. In Engonga’s first competitive game in charge, he named 10 Spanish-born players. This policy of importing success continued, and Equatorial Guinea thrived, reaching the dizzying heights of 64th in the world.

Many players are granted a second chance, but at what cost? We could end up with a structure in which players have a “first choice” nation and a “back-up” option. This would inevitably lead to a two-tiered structure of international football: Those who are good enough for their first choice, and those who aren’t (and play instead for a “consolation nation”), and the margin of supremacy between the bigger nations and minnows will only extend further.

Despite his Turkish roots, Özil opted for Germany because it was the nation that represented him best, and that he owed the most to. A mind-set not unlike that of French-born Mali international, Frederic Kanoute: “Though I am French, born in France, and I grew up there, I always took my holidays in Mali. And inside me, something always said, ‘You are of Malian origin’.”

Similarly, Didier Drogba was given the opportunity to play for France, but opted to represent the Ivory Coast (despite an unstable government – General Robert Guei imprisoned the team after several poor performances in the 2000 African Cup of Nations), and it’s a decision he does not regret: “The call-up brought me closer to my origins, my roots and my people. Like all those who have a double culture, I was looking at myself a bit....accepting that invitation to play for my country helped me find out who I really was”.

Drogba adds, “I’m sure that if I had been called up as a youngster [to play for France] then I would have opted for France”. The temptation to represent a more prestigious and bigger (in terms of past and potential future achievements) is often too alluring for younger players. We must not deny similar opportunities for self-discovery and fulfilment to the youth players of today.

The World Cup is as much a representation of the diverse new world we live in as it is one of confused nationality. Many players face a crisis of nationality, and their decisions have an incredible bearing on themselves and their country. Players have a responsibility to themselves (to their sense of identity) and to their fellow countrymen. When the Boateng brothers face each other, whose decision was made with the greater integrity? Whose decision carries greater responsibility? Or is it simply a case that Jerome was good enough for Germany, and Kevin-Prince was not?

Whatever the permutations of the manner in which players perceive their own notion of nationality, the World Cup will undoubtedly be a cauldron – a calabash even – of nationalities. 32 teams have qualified, but many more are represented. The Rainbow nation could not be a more apt setting to deliver a truly World Cup.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James