Siberian Soapbox

Ah, the international break… Some love it – albeit while hiding under a rock somewhere in the Outer Hebrides – while others are not so keen. Now, however, we have the delightfully simple UEFA Nations League to contend with. Promotion, relegation, backdoors to the Euros; Christ, even the Republic of Ireland might qualify. Or will they? Without salt-of-the-earth Irish stalwart Declan Rice, their challenge might collapse.

Poor Declan. His burden is the price of actually being good at kicking a ball. Having represented the Republic all the way from under-16 level to the full senior side, he is now being slaughtered by intelligent luminaries such as Kevin Kilbane and James McClean for daring to be courted by the country of his birth. Gareth Southgate is said to have held talks with the lad about his allegiance. Ever the waistcoated diplomat, however, he has left the decision with the teenager.

Rice is perfectly entitled to consider his options from a legal standpoint. By that, of course, I mean in the eyes of FIFA, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Anyhow, having only played in friendlies for the Emerald Isle, there is nothing stopping him switching to represent the country where he grew up, was developed and has resided in for his entire existence.

Switching nationality

Hang on – haven’t we been here before? Jack Grealish and his mid-90s boy-band curtains were swishing tantalisingly in front the FAI a couple of years ago. Admittedly his switch back to represent England came before under-21 level. There were still plenty of critics ready to scream blue murder at him for daring to change allegiance.

In fact, let’s go even further back. Changing nationalities is nothing new in football, and it has been for a wide variety of reasons. Alfredo Di Stefano represented three countries; the country of his birth, Argentina, the country of his mercenary residence, Colombia, and the country of his legendary status, Spain. In the mid-20th century, rules were more flexible.

Ferenc Puskas fled communist Hungary as a political refugee and settled in Spain where he starred for Real Madrid. Despite having played for his native country, he also pulled on the Spain shirt in his mid-30s. That was after enduring a five-year absence from international football and was only at the tail end of his career.

Irish football’s reliance on its country’s diaspora

So how should we judge Declan Rice? Well, we shouldn’t. I admit that upon first hearing the news a wave of tub-thumping jingoism overtook me. Who does he think he is to toss aside the national shirt he’s been wearing? Thousands of Irishmen would chop off their left testicle to be in your shoes, you ungrateful little squirt.

For all of Kilbane’s criticism, he needs to remember a lot about the football in the country he represented. The League of Ireland has never come close to matching the resources of the English football league. Developing young players to genuine international standard is beyond the resources of clubs that can hope to receive prize money of tens of thousands, not hundreds of millions.

The Irish diaspora is enormous and has fed a huge amount of the Republic’s great teams for decades. It’s just the way it is, however frustrating it may be for the most patriotic of Irishmen. Kilbane was referring much more to the emotional choice to represent your country, though. Yes, that’s right, the same Kilbane who was born in Preston, raised in England, and never set foot on an Irish domestic pitch.

“I’d rather be ranked 150 and never qualify than have someone who has played, but needs time to think whether they should play for us again.” Right, sure you would Kevin, you sanctimonious prick. You got to swan off to Japan and South Korea in the best period for Irish football since USA ‘94. My arse you would have given it up at the time for the sake of principles.

Quality and competition

I don’t mean to denigrate what a good career Kilbane had, or that he worked bloody hard to earn it. To launch into such a fierce broadside at Rice for his decision, though, is utter crap. Kilbane was never remotely good enough to have a chance of playing for England, so was never going to have the dilemma of who to represent. Dress it up as patriotism all you like; once the prospect of making the England XI is removed, it’s very easy to play the Irish patriotism card.

That may have come across as extremely arrogant about England’s quality compared to Ireland’s, but it’s the brutal truth. At this point, it is worth remembering that Declan Rice is far from a fixture in a desperately underwhelming West Ham team. Christ, the lad’s not turned 20 yet, but in today’s warped football world, that’s not young anymore. By 19, Eric Dier was as good as a regular in Sporting’s first team. Jordan Henderson too for Sunderland, and Harry Maguire at Sheffield United.

Nationality nuances

Kilbane is missing the point. Yes, it would be lovely for everyone to remain loyal to their country. Career development though – and football is a career – is more important. Which national team shirt you pull on is not a definitive, conclusive statement about which country you love. In his eyes, Suriname ought to be one of the strongest countries in the Americas. France might never have won the World Cup. Tim Cahill could still be an unknown tattooed American Samoan.

Nationality is a very nuanced thing. My daughters, for example, will be eligible to represent England or Russia, for the simple reason that their mother is Russian. When they are faced with a decision to pull on the Three Lions or the two-headed eagle, they won’t be disowning one country or the other. They will make the choice for their own reasons. Hopefully, that would include giving them the best prospects for their future career.

International career move

Like it or not, choosing your nationality in football has been a career move since the sport began. It won’t sit well with some, perhaps, but it is true. For some reason, this issue seems to sit more awkwardly in football than other sports. In cricket and rugby union, for example, the crossover of foreign-born nationals is rife. Little major complaint is raised.

Your decision as a 16-year-old is quite possibly going to be different to that as a 19-year-old. Your career is at a different stage, your development as a player is different, and prospects may have changed. Declan Rice should be free, within the rules, to choose what’s best for him. Unfortunately, thanks to outbursts like Kilbane’s, it will very uncomfortable for Rice to return to the Irish fold for now. He has been left out of both the Republic of Ireland and England squads and is in limbo.

I tell you what; let’s blame FIFA. The rules allowing a switch after a senior appearance in friendlies should be dropped. Obscure grandparent rulings could be tightened. Unless direct parentage is involved, residency for five years as a minimum could be enforced. If players aren’t mature enough to decide definitely once called up at senior level, then there’s no helping them.