By Graham Ruthven
Soccer is rarely the best arena for intricate social discussions. Tribalism and rivalries means the sport's response to serious issues like racism and homophobia often lack consistency and common logic.
And in the space of 20 minutes a scrawny 18-year-old from Brussels gave soccer another complex subject to debate: national identity.
With Manchester United trailing Sunderland 1-0, Adnan Januzaj scored twice on his first start for the club to announce himself as one of soccer's brightest young prospects. Now the teenager finds himself the trophy in a six-way battle being fought across the international soccer spectrum.
Under modern FIFA regulations Januzaj is eligible to play for Albania, Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Turkey. But most controversially England has also planted its flag, despite the fact he wouldn't be able to play for the Three Lions until 2018 at the earliest.
"There's no doubt that he's a real talent and we have our eyes on him," gushed England manager Roy Hodgson on national TV. As a society England imports most things. Now it wants to import its soccer players too, starting with Januzaj.
But how can a Belgian-born player, with Albanian and Kosovan parents and Serbian and Turkish grandparents possibly qualify for the English national team?
Current laws state a player must have a parent or grandparent born in the country in question, or have lived there for a minimum of five years after the age of 18. Should Januzaj forego all other advances, he could play for England by 2018. As far as soccer goes, Januzaj is a man with no homeland, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal (although Krakozhia is one of the few countries not vying for Januzaj's commitment).
The 18-year-old is likely, if not certain, to spurn Roy Hodgson's advance, choosing to play for Albania (the country of his father's heritage) or Belgium (where he was born). However, the eligibility debate over Januzaj masks a wider discussion in English soccer. What constitutes national identity? Does a player need to feel English to play for England?
Januzaj's rise to prominence comes at a time when the lack of top-level English talent making a mark in the Premier League has forced a rethink on the FA's youth policy, embodied by the appointment of Greg Dyke as the organization's new chairman.
The English paradox is that it trains more young professionals than any other European nation, yet still struggles to produce top-level homegrown players. The Premier League's global reach attracts some of the sport's best talent. The division's sheer prosperity gives clubs the liberty to pluck young players from around the world. By the rule of percentages and European employment law, making the enforcement of quotas almost impossible, English players are failing to make the breakthrough.
Januzaj could be the first of many English-trained, yet not strictly English, players to abandon their country of birth for the Three Lions. Having already embraced the notion of employing foreign managers by appointing Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, England might finally be using its greatest asset, the Premier League, to enhance its national team with foreign talent, even if it means compromising its very purpose. But if England is to wave one rulebook in the face of international soccer, they'll have to rip up another.
By exploring the eligibility of Januzaj England might be conceding the core principles that underpin the existing agreement between the Home Nations. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales struck an agreement in 1993 that naturalization should only be permitted if a player has undertaken five years of education in that country before the age of 18. The sport's world governing body, FIFA, officially ratified the deal.
England has debated the issue of naturalizing players before. Mikel Arteta, Manuel Almunia, Louis Saha and Carlo Cudicini, all players who qualified on residency grounds, have all been the subject of such a public debate, yet the Home Nations agreement remains intact. A repeal of the bylaw would have to be unanimously agreed on by all four members for it to be broken.
Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere articulated his thoughts on the matter: "If you've lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn't make you English," he said. "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." When does nationalism verge on chauvinism?
Even the best teams with the deepest talent pools have used naturalization. Spain's dominance of European soccer started with their triumph in the 2008 European Championships, with Brazilian-born Marcos Senna a central lynchpin in midfield.
And Spain is at it again, bagging Italian-born Thiago Alcantara, regarded as one of Europe's finest young midfielders, and convincing Diego Costa, another exciting, young talent, to switch nationality.
Costa has already played for Brazil, pulling on the famous yellow and green shirt for exhibition games against Italy and Russia as recently as March. Yet just six months later the Atletico Madrid striker, who is out-scoring Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, has pledged himself to the Spanish national team.
"Soon a country will be able to sign 20 players and set up their national side," fumed Scolari last week as it was broken to him that Costa had chosen to play for Spain.
The Brazil manager may have a point. Countries with little, or no, soccer heritage are fast-tracking their national teams by harvesting the international soccer scene.
FIFA has condemned nations exploiting the gaping loopholes in its eligibility regulations. "It is against the spirit of the game," said president Sepp Blatter after blocking Qatar's efforts in 2004 to naturalize three Brazilian players for its national team.
Togo used no less than six naturalized players in a qualification campaign for the 2004 African Cup of Nations. It prompted FIFA to implement an emergency ruling stating only players with a clear connection to a country would be able to represent them.
But that hasn't stopped countries plucking players from the global, unclaimed talent pool for its national team. The residency loophole calls into the question the true motive behind countries actively lobbying young soccer players.
The Aspire Academy is a center for sporting excellence established by the Qatari Emir, attracting talent as young as eight from across the globe. Qatar's social blueprint for the future places a heavy emphasis on sport, demonstrated by the country's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, and its ambition to have developed a competitive national team by that time is no secret.
Is it possible that by the time 2022 comes round Qatar could have effectively recruited an entire roster of players with no bloodline to the state? In theory, projects like the Aspire Academy and the Emir's lucrative sporting program could facilitate it.
FIFA is doing its best to combat the practice. Gabon were recently deducted three points from their World Cup qualification campaign for fielding Charly Moussono, who had previously represented Cameroon in a FIFA-organized competition, the 2006 Beach World Cup.
But within the current constitution progress is somewhat incremental. FIFA's regulations are outdated and need to be brought in line with modern society. Naturalization in its current form is undermining the credibility of international soccer.
The process has long crossed the integrity of international soccer, dating back to the 1950s when legendary Real Madrid striker Alfredo di Stefano turned out for Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Tony Cascarino, born in Kent, England, played no less than 88 times for the Republic of Ireland in the belief he had Irish grandparents, before discovering his mother had been adopted.
Of course, nationality can be a fluid concept. Sense of statehood and national pride is an entirely personal intuition. Would anyone doubt Somalia-born Olympian Mo Farah's identity as a British athlete after such public displays of patriotism at last summer's London games? Bloodlines and birthplaces aren't the only stipulations in what defines nationality.
However, where should the line be drawn? The lifeblood of the international game is the connection between fans and players; shared national pride. Lose that relationship and the fundamental objective of international soccer is lost too.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.