It is perhaps unfair to be too critical of Jack Wilshere, who was simply trying to provide an honest, immediate answer to a complex question on which he had prepared nothing in advance.
Inadvertently, however, while trying to lay out his own opinion, Wilshere seemed only to underline the key problem that continues to hold England back.
As the Arsenal midfielder expressed a small-minded, unsophisticated opinion, we were all reminded of the small-minded, unsophisticated approach to football England has had, perhaps ever since winning the World Cup in 1966.
Wilshere said at a press conference on Tuesday, as per The Guardian:
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
No, for me, if you are English, you are English, and you play for England.
The only people who should play for England are English people.
If you've lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn't make you English. You shouldn't play. It doesn't mean you can play for that country.
If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I'm not going to play for Spain.
For me an English player should play for England really.
Wilshere went on to confirm he agrees with those who say the national team manager should also be English, although he did admit that Fabio Capello was "a good manager as well" who "did a lot for my career."
Wilshere is one of the most creative, natural footballers England has produced in many years—and yet even he cannot seem to look beyond the outdated viewpoints he has absorbed (presumably) from those around him.
While Wilshere’s answer was delivered in more general terms, he was being asked specifically about the case of Adnan Januzaj, Manchester United’s 18-year-old prospect who the Football Association have sounded out about playing for the Three Lions—if and when he completes the various residency requirements.
Setting aside the specific arguments about Januzaj’s case—suffice it to say, should we not leave it up to the player himself to make his decision and then respect it, however long it may take and whichever option he chooses?—Wilshere’s assertion showed a bracing lack of empathy for differing situations and circumstances.
Januzaj is the son of Kosovan immigrants, forced to flee to Belgium before he was born due to conflict in his homeland.
As things stand, Januzaj cannot represent Kosovo because the nation is not fully recognised by the United Nations and, as a direct result, cannot be fully ratified by FIFA.
As such, unlike Wilshere, he cannot viably represent the nation he would presumably most like to but must instead either wait in the hope that day eventually comes or instead look for an alternative. That might be other nations that appear in his family tree (Albania, Serbia), the country in which he was born (Belgium) or other countries in which he has lived (England).
If Wilshere had moved to Spain at 16 and then, for whatever reason, England had ceased to be recognised by FIFA, would he really have been so keen to dismiss any overtures had La Furia Roja come calling?
Wilshere’s view is not wrong per se; it is perfectly defensible—after all, it is an opinion and everyone is entitled to them. But it is symptomatic of the very issue that is holding back England in international football, the inability to think with any great level of nuance or sophistication about key matters.
For Wilshere, it appears to be matters of culture and identity (although, again, one 20-second answer should not be taken as a perfect summation of his entire world view). For English football’s guardians, it has always been tactics, player development and coaching.
Other nations have more adroitly navigated such modern problems and reaped the rewards after embracing the different approaches and characteristics of other cultures that have been absorbed into their borders.
Germany, favourites in many quarters to win next summer’s World Cup, have a squad full of players with strong ties to other nations. They have absorbed the sons of immigrants into their country—Mesut Ozil of Turkish heritage, Lukas Podolski of Polish descent, Jerome Boateng from Ghana—and incorporated them into the country’s existing approach, resulting in a fresher, more modern way of playing the game.
The same can be said of Belgium, whose current crop of burgeoning talents exemplify the multicultural makeup of a once closeted European nation, while France and Spain have won World Cups since resolving to approach player development differently.
According to 2011 census data as per ONS.gov.uk, nearly 5 per cent of England’s "white" population is neither British or Irish but Polish, Greek, Bulgarian or any number of other Caucasian ancestries. Eight percent are Asian or Asian British and another 3.5 per cent Black or Black British—yet the translation of that into English football has been hit-and-miss.
The successes possible in this new, multicultural Britain have already been seen in other sporting spheres.
The Olympics saw Mo Farah (a Somali immigrant) and Jessica Ennis (daughter of a mixed-race couple) reach the pinnacle of their respective disciplines for Team GB, while the England cricket team has enjoyed almost unprecedented success with a team that proactively embraces talented players with non-traditional English ancestry.
One of those players, Kevin Pietersen, even confronted Wilshere about his comments on Twitter:
@KP24 With all due respect Mr Pietersen the question was about Football! Cricket, cycling, Athletics is not my field!— Jack Wilshere (@JackWilshere) October 9, 2013
English cricket has a history of such "naturalisations" (Basil d’Oliveira, Tony Greig), rendering the current crop far more palatable to the masses.
English football has had its flirtations with naturalised additions (Carlo Cudicini, Mikel Arteta) but has never quite gone where Wilshere hopes they do not, perhaps a reason for the youngster’s reticence.
But that is not necessarily a valid reason.
The likes of Wilfried Zaha and Saido Berahino (both were born in Africa before coming to England as youngsters so, if he believes his views to the fullest extent, Wilshere presumably does not approve of them representing the Three Lions) show some recent signs that things are changing.
But the FA evidently needs to look more closely at how youngsters of other backgrounds are integrated into youth systems.
"The idea that somebody who is not born in this country cannot play here is not real, but how long should they be here?," the new FA chairman, Greg Dyke, told Sky Sports on Wednesday. "But then you've got to look at what FIFA say, what are the FIFA rules on it?
"The FA are looking at what we think is appropriate and that is now what we are going through the process of."
Januzaj might just prove to be the lightning rod for a debate the game in England needs to have.
If (and it is a big if) the teenager waits another three years to fulfill the requirements needed to represent England—the sort of sacrifice that would surely indicate doing so was his ardent desire—then who is Jack Wilshere to tell him he is not welcome?
Wilshere is not the problem, but his comments are symptomatic of what is holding his national team back.
England have a tendency to think simplistically and that is why the team is consistently outmanoeuvered when an international tournament rolls around.