Dodgy international team? Get a Brazilian!

With Poles playing for Germany and a London boy playing for Turkey, national identities are blurred at Euro 2008.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

‘I want to be the traitor of the year in Holland’, quipped Guus Hiddink before his Russian team defeated his native Holland in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.

Hiddink’s tongue-in-cheek treachery illustrates the extent to which national identities have become blurred as the football market has gone global. ‘I don’t know the words to the Russian national anthem’, admitted Hiddink. ‘But I like the melody, so I will mime along.’ He wasn’t alone. Watch the players stand in line for the national anthems before each game and you’ll always see someone faking it or else a couple of refuseniks who simply don’t join in. Perhaps they’re closet republicans. Perhaps they’re too ‘in the zone’ to sing. Or maybe, like Brazilian-born Roger Guerreiro, they only received their fast-tracked Polish citizenship in April so haven’t had time to learn the words. Colin Kazim-Richards (or Kazim Kazim as he’s known in Istanbul) doesn’t sing the Turkish anthem either but then the 21-year old Londoner, who qualifies to play for Turkey through his Turkish Cypriot mother, admits he ‘could barely speak a word of the language’ when he signed for Istanbul giants Fenerbahce.

Sometimes entire teams keep schtum during their anthem. Before last Sunday’s quarter-final, most of the Italian players sang along to their anthem – pity they didn’t turn up for the match itself – but the Spanish players largely stood in silence. In that particular case, it was not so much treachery as an expression of the historical weakness of Spanish national identity. In actual fact the Spanish national anthem has not had lyrics since the Francoist words were excised in 1978. The German players mumble the words to their anthem rather than bellow with gusto as, for example, the Croatian players do. Why is that? Maybe they’re uncomfortable with overt expressions of German patriotism. Maybe some are, ahem, German traditionalists who prefer the original opening lines, ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’, which were excised after a certain embarrassing episode in the nation’s history (and I don’t mean the penalty shoot-out defeat to Czechoslovakia in the 1976 European Championship Final). Another explanation might be that a fair number of Germany’s players are immigrants like the Polish-born strike partnership, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, or mixed nationality like David Odonkor, Kevin Kuranyi, Mario Gomez and Oliver Neuville.

But it’s more complicated then that. Lukas Podolski has the words ‘Unity, justice and freedom’, taken from the German anthem, inscribed on his boots but wouldn’t sing the anthem before the group game against Poland because, as he put it, ‘I have not quite lost my Polish heart’. He also conspicuously refused to celebrate his goal against his country of birth. Switzerland striker Hakan Yakin was another who didn’t openly celebrate after scoring against Turkey, his country of origin. ‘It’s to do with fair play and having respect for a country which is still part of me’, he explained.

The muted goal celebration is something we’re used to seeing in club football: a player scoring against his old team but refusing to celebrate as a mark of respect to the fans who once chanted his name. However, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in international football. And, as with all indicators of national allegiance, there are some turncoats who confound the rules. Guus Hiddink might be Dutch but he is also a professional coach who is fully committed to ‘his’ Russian team. Consequently, Hiddink showed no Sven-like reserve when celebrating Russia’s victory over Holland. He punched the air like a true vodka-swilling son of the steppes.

One of the striking things about the Euros this year is the number of naturalised Brazilians in the tournament. As well as Poland’s Roger Guerreiro, there’s Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, and Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio. If Arsenal and Croatia striker Eduardo hadn’t broken his leg, there would have been six naturalised Brazilians at the Euros (and Croatia would been in the semi-finals). These days it seems positively de rigeur to have a naturalised Brazilian in your squad. Maybe it should be a FIFA rule. Just as Olympic under-23 teams are allowed three over-age players, so every national team could be allowed a quota of Brazilians. There’s a surfeit of skilful Brazilians who can’t get in their national side, so why not let them play for another country? The Brazilian players get to grace the international stage while other national teams acquire a bit of samba style. It’s a win-win situation, isn’t it?

Well, not according to FIFA president Sepp Blatter. ‘If we don’t take care about the invaders from Brazil, not only toward Europe but toward Asia and Africa, then the next World Cups in 2014 and 2018, out of the 32 teams — you will still have national teams — but we will have 16 full of Brazilian players’, Blatter said in November 2007. ‘It is a danger, a real, real danger.’ But what exactly is the danger? That the World Cup might become a festival of stepovers? That we might see some better quality football? I can live with that. I can’t see the problem with greater cosmopolitanism in international football. At Euro 2008 we’ve seen players and coaches with divided national allegiances but that hasn’t affected their passion or commitment to their team. Big Phil Scolari might be Brazilian but that didn’t stop him going bonkers in the Portugal dugout when his team scored. He even threw a punch at a Serbian opponent during the Euro qualifiers that sure beats badge-kissing as act of commitment.

Blatter wants to curb the number of overseas players at club level in order to ‘protect the national identity of the football clubs’. I prefer the attitude of Arsenal fans who chant ‘You need more foreigners’ at their lumbering rivals. If losing our traditional English identity means we shed our technical deficiencies, tactical illiteracy and residual route-one tendencies, then I’m all for it. Our plumbers are Polish, our doctors are Asian, so why not import our footballers too?

And, if they’re living in this country and playing for an English club, why not dish out some passports as well? Eyebrows were raised when it was suggested that Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia should be called up by England. But what’s the problem? The England cricket team does it. The England rugby union team co-opted Tongan Lesley Vainikolo. So, why shouldn’t football follow suit? Admittedly, the prospect of Almunia between the sticks for England isn’t particularly mouth-watering, but we wouldn’t complain if it was a surplus-to-requirements Brazilian like Deco or Eduardo. If Fabio Capello can’t teach our natural-born Englishmen the art of ball retention, then let’s bring in the Brazilians.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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