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Why shouldn't Wilfried Zaha choose to play football for Cote d'Ivoire over England?

Taking issue with a young black man seeking to advance his career – turning ambition into immorality – illustrates why our society is so unequal.

“Who am I?” is a question which taxes and unites us all. Pretty much every day, whether tacitly or explicitly, we’re forced to confront and assert what kind of person we are. Will we wipe that seat clean? Can we put our phone away during bedtime? If no one is watching, are we invisible?

That being so, it’d make sense for us to cut others some slack when we encounter them grappling with that same overriding issue. That we often don’t helps explain why the world is not exactly bursting with empathy, safety and security.

Last Monday, Gareth Southgate announced that he had been unable to persuade Wilfried Zaha to play football for England, rather than Côte d’Ivoire. Zaha was born in Abidjan, but after emigrating with his family aged 4, grew up in Croydon and represented his new country at under-19, under-21 and full level, before repatriating himself.

Southgate’s reputation is as a mensch, so it is difficult to fathom why he brought the matter up at all: Zaha represented his native country in the recent Africa Cup of Nations, so his affiliation is not a live issue. But, seeing as he did, it was fair to anticipate a comment along the lines of: “I went to see Wilf because I rate him. I’m disappointed, but of course I respect and understand his decision, so wish him all the best.”

But what he in fact said was: “If you don’t feel that internal 100% passion for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you. It should be your desire to do it … the inherent desire of wanting to play for your country is the most important thing. Jermain Defoe is a classic example. His whole life has been a desire to play for England from Under-16s all the way through. I don’t think if you’d approached him to play for someone else he’d have done it. That’s where I was with it too – I didn’t get capped until I was 25 and I had no interest in playing for anyone else. I’m English and proud to be English and I think part of your identity as a national team has to be pride in the shirt. So, for me, the commitment has to come from the player.”

This was somewhat odd. No one asked him to “sell” anything – he approached Zaha, not the other around – and Zaha has indicated his desire to play for his country, it just isn’t the one that Southgate seems to think it should be. Jermain Defoe, meanwhile, is a “classic example” of certainty in a hypothetical situation and inadvertently imposing upon it the appalling “good Negro-bad Negro” narrative, while failing to notice that – wait for it – it is possible for two people who have the same skin colour to have different experiences of life.

This is not to criticise Southgate’s pride in who he is. But his international career has nothing in common with Zaha’s, and he has no right referencing it to make something that is not about him about him, nor to analogise his own situation to one that is different. It really ought to be obvious that Zaha’s identity is not linear, and that his decision to represent the country of his birth is not cause to imply that he is not English, has no pride in being English, and takes no pride in the two caps he worked his arse off to win. That Southgate did is insulting; that he made their conversation public is incendiary.

The following day, Danny Mills, a former England defender, delivered his opinion on talkSPORT, saying: “Ultimately he’s taken the easier option, and thought ‘Well, I might get a few more caps and I might get to play in a few more tournaments because my chances with England are going to be limited.’ Gareth just means that he wants people to fight for the shirt and if you don’t get in you don’t get in … I probably done 30-odd squads and never got any game time; sat in the stands, sat on the bench. But you still turned up every single time in that hope that you might get a chance and take it.”

Let's break this down as though it’s a serious footballing argument. At 24, Zaha is nearing the perfect coalescence of athleticism and understanding. Just this weekend, he ravaged the champions-elect, and over the course of this season, has developed from talent into player. There is no reason to think him not good enough to get into a poor and shallow England squad – indeed, that is why Southgate approached him. Also, let’s say Mills is right, and Zaha wants to win more caps and play in more tournaments: this would be because he’s a footballer, and footballers play football.

Similarly, the notion that playing for Côte d’Ivoire constitutes an “easier option” is also not exactly a fact. When called up by England, players generally recline at George’s Park with its underwater treadmills and pubic hair straighteners, then compete at Wembley Stadium; when called up by Côte d’Ivoire, players generally schlep to West Africa, then compete at not Wembley Stadium. Just last week, Zaha was playing in a game against Senegal that was abandoned following a pitch invasion. In no sense is that “easier”.

The reality, though, is that this is not a footballing issue at all. Taking issue with a young black man seeking to advance his career – turning ambition into immorality – illustrates why our society is so unequal. Though there is a mobility myth in the United Kingdom which asserts that everything is open to everyone, the reality is different. Groups who are historically disadvantaged, whether on grounds of race, class, sex or sexuality, must wait patiently for the removal of obstacles precluding their advancement, and even thereafter, are expected to know their place and always, always be grateful.

As such, it is unsurprising that Mills’ next gambit is to suggest that Zaha would not be prepared to “fight for the shirt”. This, wittingly or otherwise recasts a slur levelled at immigrants for centuries: they are unreliable and potentially insubordinate. A version of this sensibility was prevalent in football for many years – in 1991, Ron Noades, then chairman of Crystal Palace, commented that “The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense” ­­– and there was also a belief that players of colour responded badly to adverse climate and circumstances.

Like Southgate, Mills cannot help but juxtapose Zaha’s decadence with his own virtue, another classic motif of oppression. It is amazing that it needs saying, but there is nothing laudable about Mills not playing for any of the countries in which he was not born and for whom he was not eligible. But for those governed by competing and complementary concepts – minorities especially – identity is intricate and fluid. Moreover, people change as they get older, as their understanding of things deepens, and responsibility to pass that on dawns.

A facet of Mills’s England career on which he rather curiously does not expound is that Owen Hargreaves was among his team-mates; Hargreaves, born and raised in Canada before completing his footballing education in Germany, represented Wales at youth level and remains the only man to make his debut for England without having lived or played in the country. Did Mills ever express to him the view that he was only in the squad because Canada weren’t very good? Did he feel that he could rely on him to “fight for the shirt”? Has he ever told Andy Townsend, his sometime pundit-partner, that his caps for Ireland were won only because he wasn’t good enough for England, and that his commitment was necessarily less as a consequence? And if not, why not? What might it possibly be about this particular case that exercises him so? If only there were a word to describe this apparent discrepancy!

Throughout history, dominant racial groups have taken it upon themselves to instruct others about who they are and what they should be. Not only do Mills and Southgate fail to acknowledge the crucial difference between Zaha’s experience and their own, but neither so much as mentions his Ivorian roots, let alone seeks to understand why they are important to him.

Which is not to say that I cannot understand their disappointment. When Daniel Welbeck opted to play for England rather than Ghana, as a supporter of Manchester United, sharer of the name Daniel and husband to a Ghanaian, I thought “oh, that’s a shame” ­– for the three seconds it took for me to realise that his deeply personal decisions are none of my fucking business.

But Southgate and Mills think differently, reflecting a prevalent attitude of an England that is inherently and palpably superior to the rest of the world. And we are seeing the fruits of this attitude in real time. Also last week, the Prime Minister gave notice to leave an organisation which has preserved peace in Europe for a generation, in the process threatening lives to achieve a better trade deal; a tabloid crowed about the £500m earmarked to be spent on bringing back blue passports, when health and education budgets are squeezed; a broadsheet columnist, born in 1960, advocated a return to imperial measurements which were phased out in 1965; and a former Home Secretary said that Britain had to be ready for war with a NATO ally.

This behaviour reflects an idealised, fetishised national identity, based on nostalgia for things that people either cannot remember, or which never existed. Like all historically powerful nations, England – Great Britain – owes much of its status to subjugation of others. And though the worst of that is over, its vestiges remain in both overt discrimination and the myriad microaggressions with which people of colour are forced to contend on a daily basis – of which the treatment of Zaha is but one example. 

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The New Statesman Cover: The revenge of the left

A first look at this week's magazine.

22 - 28 September issue
The revenge of the left