If the Football Association changes the rules on who can play for the national team, it will be a dereliction of duty
I've been waiting for the debate about who's English enough for England for some time. It's been inevitable since the Football Association first went down the road of appointing a foreign manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, to the national team back in 2001. The latest furore was sparked by Roy Hodgson, today's England manager, last weekend. Commenting on the 18-year-old Belgian, Adnan Januzaj, who scored two goals for Manchester United on his full debut, Hodgson told Match of the Day: "He's a real talent and we have our eyes on him," adding: "Yes [he could play for England] down the line if he becomes naturalised or if he becomes a homegrown product." FA chairman Greg Dyke later confirmed that he was looking at how long players need to be based in the UK before qualifying for the national team.
When asked about this issue on Tuesday, Arsenal and England player Jack Wilshere told a press conference: "The only people who should play for England are English people." Wilshere was simply giving an honest answer to a question, but his comments generated unfortunate headlines, such as "England for the English", which plays to a wider controversy about immigration and nationality in general. But his remark shouldn't be confused with the racist and xenophobic comments which often tarnish discussion of these issues.
We should be clear about what Wilshere was saying: he wasn't objecting to any player who came to the UK as a child – whose parents lived here, paid taxes – and who went to school here and then made it in football. Wilshere is perfectly happy for them to play for England. Likewise the former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, ex-England player Stan Collymore, plus Wayne Rooney, who've all commented this week. The game should take their opinions seriously.
We all have different ideas of what Englishness is. And this nationality question is not ours alone. In 1984, after Italy failed to qualify for the European Championships, they considered bringing in non-nationals. The Portuguese too: Brazilian-born Deco arrived in Portugal aged 19 and was eventually granted citizenship, and a place in the team, despite having no Portuguese parents, grandparents or great-grandparents – much to the annoyance of international colleague Luis Figo, who commented: "If you're born Chinese, well, you have to play for China."
This is a very hot topic, but the responsibility for any fallout has to lie with Dyke and the FA; not only did they trigger the debate this week, but it comes on the back of their regular and inflammatory suggestions that English players are not getting their chances in the Premier League, and that this is hampering the national team's progress. Then there's the veiled suggestion that they want the Premier League clubs to make more concessions to English players so that more can play. But the argument is wrongheaded: the FA fails to appreciate that it is not the Premier League's job to provide English national teams with players; the clubs have to attract the best players in the world, and provide top-quality football to their fans.
It is a genuine meritocracy. Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, David Moyes and André Villas-Boas are doing the best they can for their clubs, which are private business concerns. England and the FA will ultimately benefit from the lucrative TV deal the Premier League can negotiate. And the national team can choose which players it wants from those clubs. They have total control - if they want to reinterpret the rules of what Englishness is, it's up to them.
But if the FA does decide to spread the net of possible England internationals globally, it will be even more difficult for English-born or raised players to gain a place. Is that what fans want? What message does that send to the star player in the school team whose greatest ambition is to play for his country?
Every week I see the benefit of the diversity and the range of nationalities represented in the Premier League and what it's brought to our national game. But English players can come through. The ones who make it to the top of the club game are, by definition, extremely talented.
This debate began with the FA and will finish with their decision. The FA's role should be to support the development of English coaches and English players. Trying to get around this core objective, by changing rules to make more people English when it suits them, is a dereliction of their duty.