James Gheerbrant argues against England’s push to naturalise Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj…
The enduring fascination and frustration of international football, the thing about it that compels and confounds in equal measure, is that there are no quick fixes. For the international manager, there are no easy answers to the sort of problems that club coaches are used to eliminating with a fusillade of their semi-automatic chequebook. If your side doesn’t have a decent striker (a problem which has plaqued a succession of otherwise outstanding Portugal teams, for example), then you cannot simply dip into the transfer market to acquire one. If the issues run deeper, if they reflect a nation’s football culture, they must be solved through grass-roots graft, not by parachuting in a panacea. The beauty of the international game is that there is no hiding from the ugly truth.
That, at least, was how it used to be. But on Saturday Roy Hodgson, the manager entrusted by the FA to nurse the ailing English patient towards Brazil, had a glimpse of just such a miracle cure. At Sunderland on Saturday, Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, 18 years old and precociously gifted, inspired a comeback victory on his full debut with two superbly taken goals – and announced himself as perhaps English’s football unlikeliest Messiah. For it emerged that Januzaj, though born and raised in Belgium to Albanian parents, could yet qualify to pull on the Three Lions on residency grounds. No matter that Januzaj has lived here only two years, no matter that England is in no real sense his homeland, he is the prodigious playmaker we have hungered for through the wilderness years. In this modern-day football parable, he is not so much the prodigal son as the fatted calf.
Technically supreme, perfectly balanced, composed in possession, Januzaj looks every inch a world-class trequartista in the making. He is exactly the kind of modern playmaker which England doesn’t produce enough, and whose dearth is so loudly bewailed in pubs and press-boxes up and down the land. Of England’s current crop, only Jack Wilshere could be said to fit into this category, and having been exiled to the wing at Arsenal in recognition of the superior form of Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, the young man is currently in no position to shoulder the lone burden of the salvation of English football. It is certainly not hard to see why England are “monitoring” Januzaj, as Hodgson admitted on Match of the Day, gamely attempting to make this faintly vulturine piece of opportunism sound like a masterstroke of diligent surveillance.
It is difficult to make the case that an increasingly beleaguered Hodgson, given the underwhelming cards that fate has dealt him, should decline the providential opportunity of an ace in the hole – in the hole just behind the striker, to be exact. But there are other factors to consider here. Where would Januzaj fit into an England side? The question is not so much one of how to accommodate him on the pitch – he is good and versatile enough to overcome that problem – but of how to integrate him into England’s football culture. What place would a smooth midfield operator like Januzaj have in England’s clunky attacking machinery? What use making him the poster boy for progress if behind the scenes the FA keep going back to tactical dinosaurs like John Beck, the notorious long-ball merchant revealed last week to be working as a ‘coach educator’ at St George’s Park? It is no coincidence that in reality Januzaj hails from the land of Hazard, Witsel and Dembele, not that of Wayne, JT and Stevie G. He could not be more obviously a product of Belgium if he was smothered in chocolate and topped with a hazelnut.
Some would argue that hard-headed pragmatism must win out, that as long as Januzaj can improve England’s chances of success, he should be targeted. But for those who incline towards this reasoning, the sporting annals offer a cautionary tale. In 2006, the Lawn Tennis Association held talks with Novak Djokovic about transferring his allegiance to Great Britain. At that point, the Serb was only a year older than Adnan Januzaj is now, and occupied the same position on the brink of stardom in his sport. The negotiations were ultimately fruitless, but they were serious, and it is worth imagining how different the British tennis landscape would look if they had had a different outcome. Instead of two Grand Slam titles, Britain would have amassed eight in recent years, and the wait for a Wimbledon champion would have been two years shorter. But would the success have been as sweet? Would we have celebrated Djokovic’s triumph as earnestly as we did Murray’s this summer? Of course not. In the end, Djokovic decided that he was Serbian, not British, and the history of British tennis is prouder for it.
For Januzaj, the decision is more complicated. He must choose between the promise of his homeland and the pull of his heritage. Perhaps his future lies with Belgium, perhaps it belongs with Albania. But he is not an England player. However much we might wish Roy Hodgson had a wild card up his sleeve, it is only right that he plays the hand he has been dealt.
Originally published on A Virtual Spectator.