One minute he was the youngest English goalscorer in Champions League history. The next, he was German. Jamal Musiala — the Bayern Munich starlet — was on the brink of a call-up to the England national team in early 2021. A short chat on the phone from Gareth Southgate would have been nothing but natural progression for a youngster heavily capped at youth level for England, and who was beginning to find his feet for the Bavarian giants.
Musiala was born in Stuttgart, though. And between representing England’s U15s and U16s, he had played twice for Germany’s U16s. It was true that he’d spent eight years at Chelsea’s academy, mixing with mostly English talent. But his first youth football team had been TSV Lehnerz — and now he was a regular fixture for Bayern’s senior side.
What to do? Musiala had always said that representing the Young Lions felt right because through Chelsea he knew his English peers but not those of similar age over in Germany. Come 2021, the young man was really starting to demand serious game-time for Bayern. Joachim Löw was desperate for Musiala to switch his international allegiances back to German ahead of the postponed Euro 2020. Now Southgate was rumoured to be interested in throwing Musiala into the deep end for the Three Lions’ three World Cup qualifiers in March.Embed from Getty Images
Whether Löw and Southgate were right to push is more a question of morals than anything else. The English FA, German FA and Musiala all knew that the final decision belonged only to the teenager, and quite right. He chose Germany — his country of birth. In the eight months since, he has been capped nine times by the German senior team. One of those appearances came as a last-ditch substitute attempt by Joachim Löw to turn the tide back in the favour of Germany, as they ultimately crashed out of Euro 2020. Their conquerors that day were, of course, England. Good old football.
Not every young player is in such high demand as Jamal Musiala. And few players have more complex situations in terms of their nationality (though former Manchester United midfielder Adnan Januzaj is one). But Musiala’s story is an intriguing one — especially because he could also have played for Nigeria through his father. Dual-nationality has a long history in football, and its influence will only continue to grow. More and more cases these days are not of dual-nationality, but of multi-nationality. Musiala is just one example.
Raheem Sterling is a prominent early example of dual-nationality in modern-day sport. The England star was born in Jamaica but moved to England with his mother when he was five. Within a few years of being snapped up by Queens Park Rangers’ academy, Sterling was already a very hot prospect indeed. It wasn’t going to be long before the international football made itself known to this tricky little wide player.Embed from Getty Images
It is well-documented — and much-detested among an obnoxious minority — that Sterling considers his Jamaican roots to be a considerable part of who he is. He returns to his country of birth for his summer holiday most years. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho joined him after the Euros this year.
The way that Sterling’s dual-nationality has been received by English football and English football fans has often been closed-minded, archaic, and sometimes downright repulsive. Sterling has always needed to do that little bit more than other multi-nationality England players to prove himself as an exceptional footballer… and to prove himself patriotic enough for the Albion. That’s how it has felt. Must the man engulf himself with an England flag every time he leaves the house just to prove he’s English enough?
Sterling’s relationship with England is perhaps the most complex of any players’ in recent times. It’s the sort of relationship that deserves its own book, maybe a series of books. If anything could be both grim and enlightening, it would surely be that. A lot of people in the UK feel similarly to Sterling — calling two, three, maybe four different countries ‘home.’ Too many of those whose only ‘home’ is England don’t even try to understand what that experience might be like.Embed from Getty Images
Sterling plays for England because of a relatively recent FIFA eligibility law called the ‘Home Nations Exception.’ He qualified for England not through ancestry or through having a British passport, but rather because he completed more than five years of his education here. As many will know, his school overlooked Wembley Stadium. But that affinity to Jamaica will always exist. Asked as an England youth player about the possibility of ever turning out for the Caribbean island at senior level, he said: “When it comes to that decision, that is when I will decide, but if Jamaica calls for me, why not?”
In the end, the only ‘why not’ was the alternative offer put on the table by England. Roy Hodgson brought him into the England senior team in November 2012 at the age of just 17. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it didn’t need to be. Anyone who thinks the rules for international player eligibility are convoluted should read the laws for players who wish to change nationality. FIFA simplified these laws in 2020, but they are still about as easy to understand as fiscal policy written in binary. One of the amendments tried to better define phrases which numerous FAs had enquired about or come unstuck with. My suspicion is that FIFA haven’t seen the last of these emails from member associations checking individual cases.Embed from Getty Images
Declan Rice was able to swap Ireland for England — not one of history’s recommended switches — because he’d only played three times for the Republic, and never in a competitive match. The London-born midfielder had grown up an England fan, yet was understandably tempted when the FAI offered him senior international football so early on in his blossoming career. When England became an option later on, Rice set sail across the Irish Sea.
Whether it is Rice (who felt little affinity to the Republic of Ireland) or Musiala (who sees himself as both German and English), multi-nationality players are only going to become an ever-more prominent sight in football. Never before has our world felt so small, has travel been so possible, has migration (of all types) been so eminent, have (most) borders felt so permeable. Multi-nationality sportspeople: complex, and here to stay.