Euro 2020 the stage for a new generation of multinational footballers

·9-min read
Aymeric Laporte has switched to Spain (Getty Images)
Aymeric Laporte has switched to Spain (Getty Images)

It was a question that made many within the Spain squad uncomfortable, but that others around the group actually felt was understandable. On Sunday, one journalist just went straight out and asked Aymeric Laporte whether the defender feels “Spanish enough to defend the badge, the flag, the anthem”, after his recent switch from France.

The discussion would usually seem unfair, and perhaps even loaded with a lot of awkward nationalistic themes. The reality is that it articulates a provocative theme at the very core of Euro 2020, that may ensure this tournament becomes a landmark in terms of the interpretation of international football. Laporte is one of 17 players at these championships to have officially switched nationality. Five of those players earned full caps for other countries:

  • Arijan Ademi, who switched from Croatia to North Macedonia

  • Nacer Chadli, who switched from Morocco to Belgium

  • Denzel Dumfries, who switched from Aruba to Netherlands

  • Mario Fernandes, who switched from Brazil to Russia

  • Declan Rice, who switched from Ireland to England

The example of Rice alone naturally provoked a huge debate in Ireland, and a lot of emotion. That’s what issues of nationality and patriotism do. It is what that question towards Laporte covered in asking about “the badge, the flag, the anthem”, even if the Spanish defender was in the opposite situation to Rice in that he was irritated that one country didn’t pick him.

It is also precisely why these European Championships offer a persuasive argument as to why the current rules are correct, and should remain as fluid as possible until the point of competitive participation. The regulations reflect a necessary - and surprisingly sophisticated - understanding of this new world that football is finding its way into. That can be seen in the very make-up of Euro 2020.

At least a quarter of the players involved in these championships will have empathised with Rice in some way. From the available information, 175 of the 622 selected have dual nationality. As many as 23 of those possess triple nationality, with one - Wales’ Ethan Ampadu - having been eligible for four countries.

Declan Rice in action for Ireland’s U18s in 2016 (Bongarts/Getty Images)
Declan Rice in action for Ireland’s U18s in 2016 (Bongarts/Getty Images)

The likelihood is that the number of players is far higher - estimated to be more than a third - due to individuals either not publicising their ancestry or not necessarily knowing some of it, as well as the high variability of citizenship rules for different countries. Ireland’s so-called “granny rule”, for example, only exists because the country rather liberally extended passports to third-generation migrants in order to reflect the diaspora.

It is also why, despite all of the completely fair arguments against the logistics of this tournament amid Covid, there is a fitting symbolism that it is being staged across Europe. Just as games take place in more countries than ever before, a greater number of players feel an allegiance to more countries than ever before.

Euro 2020 might well be the first post multinational tournament in that regard, something that is all the more ironic given that it comes at a time when the Covid crisis is closing borders and preventing movement.

Fluidity is at the very heart of this, and should affect the way we perceive international football.

Accepting that can understandably prove challenging for people, because the “truth” of so much of football history has been that your nationality is hardwired, and based on a depth of emotional allegiance that club football can’t match.

Real social history has obliterated that. Freedom of movement, as well as so many other events and developments that have caused mass migration, mean more people have multiple nationalities than ever before.

It can be seen in the teams at these championships. Poland are the only group that doesn’t have a single player eligible for another country, although that represents quite a shift from their squads in 2012 and 2016.

It should again be stressed these figures are only based on available information, and are probably conservative. From those numbers, though, the Euro 2020 countries that have most benefited from players with multiple nationalities are the following:

Players of dual or multiple nationality, based on available information

  • France 17

  • Switzerland 16

  • England 15

  • Wales 14

  • Belgium 11

  • Netherlands 10

  • Finland 9

  • Germany 9

  • Denmark 8

  • Portugal 8

  • Austria 7

  • Croatia 7

  • Sweden 7

  • Turkey 6

  • Scotland 6

  • Spain 5

  • Russia 4

  • Hungary 4

  • Italy 4

  • North Macedonia 3

  • Ukraine 3

  • Czech Republic 1

  • Slovakia 1

  • Poland 0

Some of these squads contain so many players eligible for one or two other countries that they could almost be alternate teams.

Wales have nine who could have played for England. Belgium have six who could have played for DR Congo. The Netherlands have five who could have played for Surinam. England have six who could have played for Ireland.

In total, 52 other countries could have been represented by the players at Euro 2020, to go with the 24 at the tournament. The international teams to have lost most by potential picks from this tournament are below. England’s number is skewed by its political union with Wales and Scotland, and the fact so many players inevitably have parentage from both. Otherwise, DR Congo would be way out in front.

  • England 18

  • DR Congo 13

  • Bosnia 9

  • Ireland 9

  • France 8

  • Germany 8

  • Ghana 7

  • Brazil 7

  • Spain 6

  • Surinam 5

  • Nigeria 5

  • Angola 5

  • Netherlands 5

  • Serbia 5

  • Jamaica 5

  • Cape Verde 4

  • Turkey 4

Beyond that, countries as diverse as the Philippines (David Alaba), Guinea-Bissau (Danilo Pereira) and Haiti (Jens Cajuste) have missed out on possible call-ups.

The factors that led to this are naturally as varied as the list of nations some of these players have declared for.

Some are simply the sons of mixed marriages, such as Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodriguez (Spain-Chile). Olivier Giroud could meanwhile have declared for Italy due to his maternal background, and Antoine Griezmann for Portugal. Some are naturalised citizens, as is the case with Russia’s Mario Fernandes (Brazil). Some cases are the consequences of complicated political situations, such as a few players in the Croatia and North Macedonia squads. A huge amount - and probably the greatest proportion - are the sons or grandsons of people who migrated in search of work, or due to the varied effects of post-colonialism. This inevitably covers some of the biggest countries, and swathes of the Belgian, English, French, Portuguese, Dutch and German squads. As the historian David Olusoga put it recently, dual nationality is an “archetypal British imperial identity”. It also works the other way, as is the case with the three Turkish players who could have declared for Germany - chief among them Hakan Calhanoglu.

The decision-making processes for all of these players were almost as varied as the backgrounds. There is naturally a long spectrum, from those who found it extremely easy to make their decision, and those who found it agonisingly difficult.

Some just know. Others had no idea.

Russia’s Dennis Cheryshev for example spent the majority of his formative years in Spain, due to his father Dmitri playing for Sporting Gijon and Burgos. The younger Cheryshev consequently told Marca in 2011 that he possibly felt more Spanish than he did Russian. The recalled Karim Benzema at various points considered Algeria over France, with some connected figures even investigating a switch during his exile. On the other side, Wissam Ben Yedder turned down five different Tunisian attempts to recruit him, while Emre Can was one of a few Turkish-Germans who grew up through the German federation and felt emotionally bonded to them.

Ethan Ampadu was eligible to represent four countries (Getty Images)
Ethan Ampadu was eligible to represent four countries (Getty Images)

Rice and his family meanwhile heavily discussed his decision to switch to England due to his family’s deep sense of their Irish heritage, but that was just never an issue for Harry Kane. The striker’s father hails from Galway, but Kane was only ever interested in England.

How keenly any nationality is felt will obviously differ from family to family and individual to individual, while being dependent on all manner of factors. Some people feel grateful to adopted countries, some resent them. Some parents are very concerned with ensuring their children are aware of their national cultures, others are much more liberal about it.

It only further complicates all of this that federations put pressure on players from a very young age, often leading to lasting career decisions while still in their teens.

The example of Jamal Musiala is perhaps a case study for so many players of the present and future. The hugely talented midfielder could have chosen any of Germany, England or Nigeria, and ended up switching between underage teams twice, before eventually settling on Germany at the mere age of 18.

Some federations actively look to recruit young players for underage sides by telling them they can just try it and always switch back, only to get irritated when the players do exactly that. The Independent has been told of one national association who actually had a feature-length documentary made about their country, to try and play on the emotions of one high-profile star.

Some of the perceptions about potential earnings are also wrong. Many industry figures insist that players like Bukayo Saka would have “earned fortunes” had they declared for Nigeria, as an example, because it would have opened them to numerous pan-African commercial details.

This does point to one broader trend among these varied cases.

In the majority of examples, it is the more successful football country that tends to win it out. This is perhaps inevitable, but also often more innocent than is usually considered.

When players naturally struggle to make an emotional decision between two or more countries they feel deep allegiance to, they will naturally base their decision on logic. They will pick the country that gives them the best chance of playing in an international tournament.

This works both ways too. The most coveted players will pick the best team, but those unwanted by one of their countries will naturally go to the other.

Much of this was also articulated by Laporte’s eventual answer.

“It’s quite a strong question but I will try to reply in the best way possible. I will compete at the top level. The objective is the same as Spain’s, to win the competition. I will give everything to win with the national team and that is the important thing.”

That’s what it’s ultimately all about.

This isn’t to say there isn’t extreme calculation to some examples, of course. Laporte is arguably one of them, along with many of those who have become “naturalised”, but the federations often operate the same principles. Given the emotions such issues inspire on all sides, though, the wider point is that a bit more understanding is due.

It is one area where the regulations might actually be ahead of most of the game.

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