With one decision, and a multi-layered statement, Declan Rice prompted a multitude of very different - and very emotional - responses.
Many in English football obviously celebrated, as they had secured a hugely promising talent for a problem position. The reaction in Ireland was a lot more mixed. There was a natural lament that a football culture currently going through a crisis in terms of player production had lost an underage star and someone who already had three friendly caps and seemed to represent the future. It was precisely because of his caps the reaction went a lot deeper than whether a team could be built around Rice, touching on technical problems with Fifa’s eligibility rules, and the much wider sociological issue of what nationality actually means.
Irish legend Kevin Kilbane led that reaction. “If you’re a ‘proud Englishman’,” the World Cup hero asked in relation to Rice’s own words, “then why play for us in the first place?”
It’s a fair question that many of single nationality will struggle to understand. Kilbane carries even more weight here because he is the English-born son of first-generation migrants. He, like Rice, has dual nationality.
The fundamental problem with this entire debate, however, is dual nationality can mean very different things to very different people.
And much of the Irish reaction was essentially related to the fact Rice’s personal interpretation of nationality doesn’t conform to people’s own.
Some of the social media reaction to his statement went to unhelpful extremes, about how this was some kind of betrayal, and taking in more antiquated notions of Irishness tied to winning independence from Britain.
This is a highly emotive issue.
But that’s also the point from Rice’s perspective.
There are a number of factors that will form national identity, even more complicated than who you can claim a passport off. They come down to elements like where you grew up, the school you went to, how invested your parents were, family culture - with all of this exacerbated when it comes to something even more emotive like football.
The bottom line is that Rice can very easily feel both a “proud Englishman” and a “proud Irishman”. His very history indicates he does, leaving aside his statement.
The fundamental challenge in situations like this is that Fifa eligibility rules - necessarily - ask individuals to make absolutist decisions about national identity, something they themselves may not feel absolutist about.
This is a challenge that’s all the more pronounced when players are underage, and are not yet old enough to vote or have a sense of who they are - let alone what nationality they are.
To temporary break a rule and the first-person wall here, I was born and grew up in Ireland with an Irish father and Spanish mother, but have always felt as Spanish as I did Irish - and certainly did from when I was psychologically mature enough to understand the issue.
This should help answer the accusation from many of why Rice accepted caps in the first place, if he didn’t know who he wanted to play.
That’s far too simplistic and reductive.
It’s not that he would have felt conflicted, but instead that he wanted to play for both. This is entirely natural for people of multiple nationalities.
From that perspective, why would you turn it down? You might not end up switching?
There’s also the fact this is by no means a one-way street. Federations are actively looking to persuade eligible players to turn out for them. And an obvious part of any such conversations, at multiple stages, is that “you can always go back”. This is part of the persuasion. There’s even the argument that the Football Association of Ireland approached him too early, when he was released by Chelsea, precisely because they knew of this dual nationality so wanted to try and tie him down.
It would frankly be ridiculous for a child to turn down the chance of caps, because of potential future conflict over who they declare for. They might not even switch.
Where there maybe should be more debate is over whether the rejected federation deserve more compensation for losing a player whose development they have invested so much in. That is something for the FAI to lobby for.
The issue of Rice’s three senior caps appears thornier, but actually isn’t.
The blunt reality is that - for so many wider sociological reasons - cases of multiple nationality are actually greatly on the rise, and any rules should adapt to the reality of any situation.
Allowing non-binding friendly caps does so, and is actually a highly nuanced and progressive step, that recognises this new world.
Those rules should possibly even go further. While competitive caps should still be binding, for all manner of reasons related to the fairness of events, it does appear needlessly restrictive - in this world - that players can only switch allegiances once. Rethinks should be allowed within reason.
A lot can change in a career, after all, and that can mean these rules don’t benefit the bigger nations as much as they need to.
That, however, would not conform to many people’s personal ideals about nationality. Much like Rice himself.
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