Onuoha, O’Hara, Gibson…shouldn’t players be able to seek a Plan B?

With the close of the domestic season and impending arrival of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it’s unsurprising that attentions have switched from club football to the international game for both players and fans alike. Whilst the rest of the world work themselves into a feverish frenzy over football’s most glamorous showpiece, a recent ‘story’ concerning Manchester City defender Nedum Onuoha forced me to ponder the very notion of representing one’s country. The Nigeria-born 23-year-old, who has appeared 21 times for England’s under-21 side, responded to suggestions that he may turn out for the Nigerian national side this summer by declaring that “I want to sort out my club career first before thinking about my international career”. Prior to Onuoha’s comments, Tottenham midfielder Jamie O’Hara, recipient of seven England under-21 caps, also admitted that he was mulling over whether or not to represent the Republic of Ireland at full international level. With international football still considered by many to be the pinnacle of one’s sporting career it made me wonder, why do some players seek an international Plan B?

Whilst Jamie Carragher’s infamous comments alluded to the fact that some modern professional players prioritise the fortunes of their club over those of their country, for many, representing one’s country is the ultimate honour within the game. The blessed opportunity to turn out for your country of birth is the chance to defend the sacred flag and national shirt with pride, a chance to take part in the biggest act of sporting patriotism.

Removing my UKIP-tinted spectacles, it appears that the globalised nature of domestic football has also had an effect upon international representation. Appearing on the international stage no longer necessarily fulfils the boyhood dream of representing your land of birth, but provides the opportunity to test oneself against the world’s best players in an environment differing to that of the domestic game. To saliently summarise, for some, international football may even represent a pleasant distraction from the rigours of club football.

Whilst the instances of O’Hara and Onuoha have drawn stinging criticism from some quarters, with many believing the pair epitomise the ills of contemporary football, instances of footballers using national sides as ‘flags of convenience’ are not an entirely modern phenomena. For example, Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stéfano, born in Argentina, turned out six times for La Albiceleste, before representing both the Columbian and Spanish national sides. Hungarian great Ferenc Puskás, one of the key components of the revered ‘Mighty Magyars’, later switched allegiance to Spain and turned out for their national side at the 1962 World Cup, having previously represented the country of his birth at the 1954 World Cup. In more recent times, Patrick Vieira has turned his back on his homeland Senegal to appear for France, and Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson has exploited Republic of Ireland’s rules of citizenship to turn out for Eire instead of Northern Ireland, his country of birth.

It seems that footballers, for decades, have used international football to suit their needs. In the cases of Gibson and Vieira, the players in question have opted against playing for their country of birth in favour of stronger national sides, with these choices undoubtedly providing them with a better chance of competing in international tournaments. Would Vieira, winner of the World Cup, European Championship and FIFA Confederations Cup with France been able to have collected these medals had he decided to play for Senegal? Probably not.

On the other hand, the uncertainty surrounding the allegiances of both Onuoha and O’Hara would suggest that the pair are pondering international careers with inferior footballing nations in order to avoid sporadic or non-existent outings for the English national side. Whilst this practice has been chastised for a perceived lack of ambition, with some suggesting that neither player thinks that they’re good enough to represent England on a regular basis, it is a practice that has been employed by several other high-profile footballers.

Again, European football possesses a wealth of footballers who have opted to switch national allegiances for such reasons, with Portugal amongst the most notable of beneficiaries. Their 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup features the talents of Deco, Liédson and Pepe – three Brazilian-born players shunned by their ‘own’ national side. Portugal’s success this summer will be heavily dependent upon the form of the aforementioned trio, implying that it is not only players but nations that benefit from the rules of citizenship and naturalisation. For Portugal, a side perpetually described as a team of ‘wingers’, the naturalised inclusion of prolific forward Liédson has allowed them to fill a previously problematic position. Portugal are not the only side to have taken advantage of this, with neighbours Spain infamously deploying the Brazilian-born Marcos Senna to fill their anchorman role and Croatia enlisting the services of Eduardo da Silva to bolster an attack that had been bereft of goals since the retirement of Davor Šuker.

Whilst such practices are becoming increasingly acceptable within the sport, it is inevitable that patriots will bemoan the sacrilege of the erosion of the international game. Deco’s initial entry into the Portugal fold was greeted with widespread dismay by the media, fans and fellow players, with Luis Figo said to be less than happy with the Chelsea man’s inclusion. Deco has since become a mainstay of the Portuguese national side, and with over 70 caps to his name, it is apparent that he managed to endear himself to the people of his adopted country. Ultimately, fans will want to see their countries succeed, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of them will overlook matters pertaining to place of birth if ‘adopted’ players perform successfully for their nation.

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