Wednesday 03 June 1998
All are British but, when the World Cup crops up, the talk is rarely about the travails of the English squad. The bons mots are reserved instead for the likes of Brazil's Romario and Ronaldo, the arguments about how well Jamaica may do and the speculation on when an Asian side will win the tournament.
It is not that home sides are not supported - Newcastle, Manchester United and Tottenham will all find fervent followers in the team. But footballing passions are too big to be contained by nationality. It is not just fans, but players who make these decisions. For nations starved of talent-in- boots, immigration restrictions and residency rights can be bent, if not broken, to fill squads.
Tunisia's 25-year-old star midfielder, Jose Clayton, is in fact a Brazilian who became an African in an indecently short time. David Regis, a Martinique- born Frenchman, took American nationality last month. The 29-year-old defender, who plays for the German club Karlsruhe and speaks little English, was finally sworn in as a US citizen after correctly answering all 10 questions at an oral test in Los Angeles.
Even the world's footballing powers can be thankful that patriotism is not defined by birthplace. Michael Owen, England's gifted forward, could easily have pulled on a Welsh shirt. When he was 13, Liverpool's teenage star was leading Clwyd schoolboys to victory in the Welsh Schools Cup final. Born in Wales to English parents, Owen represented Welsh school sides from the age of 10 and was eligible to play for the land of his birth. Fortunately for England, he opted for the land of his father.
Such behaviour paradoxically fall foul of Lord Tebbit's "cricket test". Then again, those who ask "which team do you support - the country you were born in or the place where your parents came from?" often shoot from the right wing and end up scoring own goals.
The increasingly global nature of football makes it easier for stars to slip across national boundaries and shatter deeply-ingrained stereotypes. For example, the Premiership's first black manager was not English, but the dreadlocked Dutchman, Ruud Gullit.
So why shouldn't fans be able to shift their allegiances? With up to eight black British footballers likely to make the Jamaican squad, many Afro-Caribbeans born and bought up in England will be supporting the Reggae Boyz. Most of the 40,000 Nigerians born outside the UK but living in its capital will be following not the home side but the West African nation.
I grew up in the early Eighties, and like most of my non-white peers who were fascinated by the beautiful game, longed not to watch England's Trevor Francis or Steve Coppell, but the skills of Brazil's Zico.
The last international I went to was in February, when England took on Chile. But you would not have found me among the 60,000 England supporters that night; I was in the middle of the crowd that punched the air and shouted "Che, Che Che, Le, Le Le - Viva Chile!" until my throat was sore. I lost my voice. England lost the game.
England do often get my vote. When Ince and co played a crucial World Cup qualifier in Rome against Italy last year, I cheered every touch an English player made and celebrated until the small hours in a north London pub after Hoddle's men clinched the draw that was enough to take them to France.
Blind loyalty to one side based on national pride is an option available to everyone this summer, but it is not enough to clinch my support for England.
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