The Agenda: What constitutes a national sporting identity?

In the wake of Jack Wilshere’s comments on representing England, Mark Douglas finds an interesting case study in USA-born former England international Fab Flournoy

Newcastle Eagles player coach Fab Flournoy
Newcastle Eagles player coach Fab Flournoy

You might think that Jack Wilshere’s views on sporting identity would find little sympathy with Fab Flournoy, a man whose New York accent gives little clue to his national identity.

Flournoy was born in the Bronx and spent his formative years in the New York projects but has pulled on an England jersey to represent the country in the Commonwealth Games. By Wilshere’s strictest criteria, the proudest moment of his professional career should not have counted.

But while he would defend his right to play for England long into the night – indeed Flournoy sang the national anthem with pride in Melbourne – he understands what Wilshere was getting at.

“Speaking for myself, I wasn’t born here but I have lived in England longer than I had lived in America now. I pay my taxes and I contribute to the country. I sang the national anthem with pride when I represented my country,” Flournoy says, aware of the importance of the word ‘my’ in that last sentence.

In many ways he would tick all of the boxes that you would require for someone to play for England (or Britain, if we’re talking Olympics). He has spent decades nurturing the grassroots of the game, speaks passionately about the community and school work that is a part of his job as Newcastle Eagles player-coach and now considers himself to be returning “home” whenever he walks through passport control in Britain.

Apart from his accent, there isn’t a lot about Flournoy that screams America. But his qualification to play for England was on the grounds of residency, which is what a lot of commentators seem to think is the problem on the Adnan Januzaj issue.

Michael Regan/Getty Images England footballer Jack Wilshere
England footballer Jack Wilshere

The Manchester United teenager is being courted by the Football Association to play for England but to many, it just doesn’t feel right. He won’t be able to pull on the Three Lions shirt until 2018 – when he would have lived in England for five years – and to some, including Wilshere, it seems an affront.

Wilshere’s further comments – that English players have a culture that Januzaj wouldn’t get – have been depicted by some as a Little Englander attitude. Flournoy thinks it a little more complicated than that.

“I’ve served for England when I had a full understanding of the culture and being part of the sporting culture of the country I represented. Jack Wilshere is talking about a culture of football in England, but there is also culture of the country that you’re in.

“Do you understand that? I am just coming out of a school where I have been talking to young people about a healthy lifestyle and living well.

“I am trying to get those young people to take part in basketball.

“I’m part of the British basketball culture so I feel part of it.

“Take away the fact that I wasn’t born here and ask yourself whether what I have done qualifies me to play for England?

“My situation is completely different (to Januzaj). I have been in England since 1995.

“My career and my professional life has been here.”

Spooling through the examples of national teams or squads that have fielded non-English athletes throws up interesting case studies.

Mo Farah was born in Somalia but competed for Great Britain and famously bristled at suggestions he might have been a “plastic Brit”.

Greg Rusedski never shook off the suggestion that he was Canadian while Kevin Pietersen was outraged enough by Wilshere to take him on across Twitter (with predictable results). The point is that no case is the same. To many who don’t know Flournoy, it would seem jarring that he could play for England.

But he has thought deeply about the issue, and when he is asked by The Journal to discuss it he warns that it will take a while to get his full feelings across.

“My attitude to nationality has always been that it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” he said.

“I also think the problem is that the rules and regulations in sport are there to try and create a level playing field for everyone, but they don’t take account of each individual case.

“Really the only way you can judge it is by looking at each individual case on its merits because for some people, national identity is not simple. Sport is behind society in a way. The world is getting smaller and the lines are blurred now.

“If I was to marry a British girl and have kids, what would those kids be? If I went back to America and had kids, would those kids be English?

“I can’t say. Each individual case is taken on its merits. Look at Luol Deng in basketball. He says himself he owes his career to Britain and he is an ambassador for British basketball but he is from Sudan. I don’t think he should be stopped from playing for GB.”

Before the phone clicks off, Flournoy apologises for not giving a definitive answer. “I think I just talked rather than answered the question,” he says.

But that is the point with this debate: there are no black and white answers – and it will not be going away any time soon.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer