Jermaine Pennant’s Ireland/England adventure

Recently the Republic of Ireland has made headlines for attempting to bolster their national team ranks as it becomes known players such as Jamie O’Hara, Marc Wilson and Jermaine Pennant are eligible – and perhaps welcome – to play for Ireland.

Portsmouth’s Liam Lawrence recently suggested that such players, though maybe encouraged by the FAI and manager Giovanni Trapattoni, would not be as warmly received in the dressing room as the coach’s box. The Portsmouth winger suggested that it wasn’t necessarily the decision to switch allegiances which irritated Irish players – he did so himself – but more comments made by on-the-fence players – as if they were evaluating two companies vying for the same contract.

And Lawrence’s stance is fair enough: with Pennant saying “I’m not getting any younger and I want to play international football, whether it’s with England or Ireland … I’d love to play for England but it’s just never happened”, his words make it seem his first preference is to play for England and his second would be to pull on the green of Ireland. To Lawrence, it could sound extremely selfish – as if he, his teammates and country appear to be the ugly friend at the disco. Pennant’s comments make it sound like he is focusing only on himself.

Because one’s nationality and patriotism are such complex issues, this issue is always going to be a murky one. It would be difficult (and morally dubious) to judge a player’s motives for choosing a national setup; but the lesson from Pennant’s words and Lawrence’s reaction is the value of tact. “Pennant for Ireland” is purely player-driven.  He understandably wants to experience the international stage and isn’t going to shy away from saying so.  His words though, could have been thought through more carefully.

There is, however, no question that the International spectrum is much the richer for having multicultural football teams. One of the World Cup’s greatest ever goalscorers, Miroslav Klose, was eligible both for Poland and Germany – as was his forward partner Lukas Podolski. Australia owes much of it’s growing footballing presence to players who have had dual nationalities: In fact, during the 2006 World Cup in Germany the group match between Australia and Croatia featured seven Australians eligible to play for Croatia and three Croats players who, when faced when the same decision, went the other way.

Australia seems to have both benefited and lost, however, as both Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgios Samaras were eligible for the Socceroos yet opted for Portugal and Greece respectively.

There appears to be very little that FIFA can do to stop players hemming-and-hawing about which country to play for. The rule on changing or selecting nationalities (pg 62), as it stands, is perhaps imperfect or not all-inclusive, but it is also probably the best available.  Resolution to this issue shouldn’t have to come from legislation, however, but from the players: playing for your country should be an honour, rather than an obligation or even an added perk.

When new Scot Phil Bardsley speaks of his and his family’s justifiable pride at his Scotland call-ups – the words stir the inner patriot. Jermaine Pennant’s, while it’s fair he wants to experience international football, seem a little thoughtless. International football is without doubt better off for having players strutting their stuff for the country of their choice and it is right to let a player choose his nationality.

Let’s not hang Pennant for wanting to play internationally, but Lawrence’s words ring true: when on the fence, or the outside looking in, it’s probably best not to say much.

For more analysis and opinion from Matthew Wood, visit Balanced Sports.

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