National Identity, Choosing Home, and Football

Every four years, when the world cup comes around, I find myself thinking more about national identity. It’s one of the few times I feel myself connected closely to my German-ness, brings lots of opportunities to talk with people of other nationalities about a shared passion, and shows interesting patterns for how differently people can hold and value their national identity.

As a person who has lived in so many countries across four continents, my understanding of nationality, boarders, patriotism, and immigration tend to be fairly complex and often conflicted. I’m blessed to have been born in Germany and have a German passport, as that lets me travel and fairly easily gain access to most of the world. Many do not have this privilege. Yet I don’t feel myself to be particularly German.

This year, these thoughts crystallized around two unrelated BBC articles that I read on the same day–December 1st. One on an occurrence that caused quite a commotion in England while the other was a fairly small, innocuous article about the Ghanaian football team.

In the first one (article here), Ngozi Fulani, a black woman who runs a charity to assist domestic abuse victims, was invited to a Buckingham Palace royal reception and repeatedly asked by Lady Susan Hussey, Prince William’s godmother and a lady-in-waiting to the late queen, where she was “really from”. The transcript of the conversation is at the end of the article and it’s rough reading. Lady Susan Hussey has since stepped down, she has apologized, and Ngozi Fulani has accepted the apology. But it brings up that tricky topic of how closely we related ethnicity and nationality, often without consciously considering it.

Clearly, Fulani is British. She was born there, has lived her life there, and feels herself to be British. In this case, her ancestry, ethnicity, and race have little to do with her citizenship. An approach to understanding citizenship as being tied solely to race or ethnicity is not only deeply troubling now but was so last century, let alone in the 21st. Modern travel and immigration patterns mean that nationality and citizenship cannot be simplified and any misguided attempts to try and pin someone to a single, definitive origin are signs of a simplistic view of the world that doesn’t correspond with reality.

In the second article, Elizabeth Ohene (article here) discusses why it is easier to play for the Ghanaian national team than to stand as a member of parliament, despite some of the players having not been born in the country, never visited, and not speaking any of the languages. The article makes it clear that she values these ancestral ties and believes these players of the Ghanaian diaspora should be playing for Ghana. Where it becomes tricky is when she questions those players (she names Cody Gakpo who plays for Netherlands, Richie Laryea – Canada, Ethan Ampadu – Wales, and Mohammed Muntari – Qatar) who play for another country, despite their Ghanaian roots.

Now, we clearly don’t want wealthy countries simply offering citizenship to talented players from other, less wealthy, countries to boost their own chances, and there is a long history of that. Rightly, Ohene disparages this approach to fair sporting. A country must have some claim to a player, and I approve of Fifa’s rules around having players not be able to simply switch countries once they’ve played for the senior team. This also allows younger players (like Germany’s Jamal Musiala) time to determine the trajectory of their careers and they may have multiple allegiances and homes.

But now there is a contradiction, or at least an unresolved tension.

Ohene brings up Otto Addo, the current Ghanaian coach. He was born in Germany, holds a German passport, played his club football in Germany, but his international football in Ghana. She also mentions the instances of brothers playing for different countries (currently Inaki and Nico Williams playing for Ghana and Spain respectively, and Kevin Prince and Jerome Boateng, who famously played against each other at a 2014 World Cup game between Ghana and Germany). Previously, Ghanaian-born footballer Gerald Asamoah played for Germany and so would likely fall into the same list of players that Ohene would want to call back to play for Ghana instead.

But if those players are making their choice, it needs to be a free choice. Simply being born somewhere, or having family from somewhere, or holding a passport from that country does not and should not determine football allegiance. And just because FIFA only allows a player to choose one country to play for, does not mean that this player has turned their back on other countries that can also hold a place in their heart. If someone from the German DFB had told Jerome Boateng that he could not play for Germany but must play for Ghana, the ensuing outrage would have been similar to the Ngozi Fulani situation. And when a country with a diverse population puts forth an unrepresentative team (as was some of the conversation about the English women’s team this year), there is rightly a cause for concern. But clearly, Jerome felt he wanted to play for Germany, while Kevin Prince desired to play for Ghana, and that’s a difficult, personal decision.

Many football players face this dilemma and to pretend that there is a simple solution would make light of this complexity. Whether they were born in a country, moved there with their parents, hold ancestral or ethnic ties to a country, or have simply lived most of their life somewhere and gained citizenship can all factor into this decision.

For football, it makes sense that players have to decide to play for one country or another (that they reasonably have ties to), even if that is a conflicted decision. But in other areas, there should not need to be a push to declare unequivocal allegiance. Perhaps multiple citizenship should be a more widely accepted practice between countries; rather than renouncing one country in favor of another, those with conflicted national identities might better be able to reconcile their sense of belonging by finding a balance and holding on to multiple allegiances. Maybe, rather than seeking to simplify national identity, we can allow those with many ties to find their own balance that honors where they and their parents come from, where they are, where they call home, and where their future might take them. In this globalized world of increased travel, immigration, intermarriage and beautiful fusion, we need more complex understandings of identity and belonging.

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