AH, the Nineties. Who can forget the Nineties – all John Major and Britpop and Noel Edmonds and nostalgia for the Seventies? Ah, the Nineties, when the football public used to laugh at Jack Charlton for his elastic interpretation of international eligibility rules.
(I’m pretty sure Jarvis Cocker wrote a wry song about those rules, combining tactical analysis of World Cup qualifiers with references to woodchip wallpaper and nervous fumblings in a wardrobe with his best mate’s sister, but the title escapes me.)
No one’s laughing now. Where Charlton once led the way with the Republic of Ireland, persuading Andy Townsend and Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge to check their family trees, the whole of international football has followed.
Barely a week goes by without a story emerging of some player finding a new and exciting way to play football for a country he wasn’t born in. It’s like a football version of Who Do You Think You Are? but without lengthy sequences of Jeremy Paxman or some Eastenders actress staring out of a train window and holding back tears while Hometown Glory by Adele plays in the background.
The whole international eligibility thing has always been complicated. John Barnes, for instance, played for England in the 1980s despite being born in Jamaica, having no UK ancestry and apparently not holding a British passport when he made his international debut.
(Even he wasn’t too sure how that worked out, although I seem to remember reading once that Jamaica’s history as a UK colony was a factor. As a result, it seems that he would also have been eligible to play for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.)
But it’s certainly not getting any simpler. At the end of last month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport caused a good deal of controversy by effectively ruling that anyone eligible to play for Northern Ireland could also be selected by the Republic.
The IFA, Northern Ireland’s football administration body, were less than thrilled – understandably concerned that any half-decent youngster eligible to play for the province will take one look at the qualification tables from every major international tournament over the last 20 years and decide they will have a more fulfilling career in a Republic shirt.
Over in the Republic, the mood is summed up by keeper Shay Given, whose mother was from Northern Ireland. According to Given, if a player comes from the moon and is eligible to play for the Republic, that’s fine.
Within the UK, the rules have the potential to be more complicated still. In theory, anyone with a British passport could play for any of the four home nations. In practice, that doesn’t happen because of an agreement between them, which states that a player must have at least a grandparent born in the country he wishes to represent, or to have completed five years’ schooling there by the age of 18.
So it will be interesting to see what happens with Mikel Arteta.
Last night’s final match: Everton 1 Wolves 1
Commentator: Alistair Mann
Now this is where it gets really confusing. Everton midfielder Arteta acquired British citizenship earlier this year, having been resident in England for five years. This would, it seems, make him eligible to play for England, notwithstanding the home nations’ agreement.
(Given that the agreement was amended to allow Hearts winger Andrew Driver to be considered for Scotland, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it could be amended again. Although Scotland did opt against challenging the agreement two years ago when former Rangers striker Nacho Novo became eligible to play for them through residence.)
Arteta, who has never played for his native Spain, indicated on Match of the Day after yesterday’s draw with Wolves that he would be interested in turning out for England. And Fabio Capello was in the stand at Goodison Park. Hmm.
Perhaps the national team coach, having figured that a group of Englishmen aren’t going to keep him in a job, feels that the Jack Charlton approach is now the best way to go. Charlton, after all, managed to guide the Republic to a World Cup quarter-final, despite being even less coherent in English than Capello.
Or perhaps he’s just preparing the ground for Charlton to make a shock return to management as England boss. After all, didn’t the FA say the other week that Capello’s successor will be an Englishman? Whatever an Englishman is…
1. Everton: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
2. Wolves: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
3=. Bolton: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
3=. Fulham: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
5. Blackburn: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
6. Sunderland: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
7=. Birmingham: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
7=. Stoke: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
9=. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Aston Villa: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Blackpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Newcastle: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Tottenham: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. West Brom: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
9=. West Ham: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
9=. Wigan: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L=On second last (West Brom 1 Sunderland 0)
3L=On third last (Birmingham 2 Blackburn 1)
(Teams are awarded one point every time they appear last on Match of the Day. Teams level on points are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. Teams still level at the end of the season will be separated by the drawing of lots at a glittering ceremony in London’s fashionable West End, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Sharleen Spiteri, Jamie Cullum and Dizzie Rascal, with music from Tony Gubba.)