Once when asked to describe jazz, the famous pianist Thomas Fats Waller replied, “if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it”. The quote is both sanitised — a four-letter word other than mess was used — and often misattributed (to Louis Armstrong).
For many it encapsulates their frustration with Declan Rice and his reticence about declaring for the Republic of Ireland: Declan, if you don’t know you’re Irish by now, don’t mess with us.
And yet, and especially given that we have not heard from the player, it seems unfair to judge him so harshly.
Dual heritage, and especially that which straddles both Ireland and England, is a complex and sensitive matter.
Kevin Kilbane, the former Irish international, has come in for some criticism for reacting so bluntly to Rice who, according to Martin O’Neill, has asked for time to consider whether to declare for England, the country of his (and Kilbane’s) birth.
Maybe Kilbane’s initial comments on twitter — “I’d rather be ranked 150th in the world and never qualify again than have someone who has played but needs time to THINK whether they should play for us again” — were precipitous.
And yet hearing him and others, such as Gary Breen, speak, it is clear that the issue is not so much whether Rice identifies as being Irish and more about their Irish identity.
Put simply, and understandably, for Kilbane, Breen and many others, this is personal. When it comes to the technical rules on nationality and football, Rice is within his rights to reconsider even though he has played three senior friendlies with the Republic and represented us at underage level.
Rice was born in London and his parents were born in England. He is by birth a British national. Rice is also, however, entitled to Irish citizenship by descent.
One set of his grandparents come from Douglas in Cork. In short, Rice has dual nationality and, under Article 5 of Fifa’s regulations, is entitled to play for either England or Ireland.
Article 6 of Fifa’s regulations go on to say that a player who is eligible to represent more than one football association may play in an international match for one of these associations only if he fulfils at least one of the four conditions.
The third condition is that the player’s “grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant association”. This provision, sometimes inaccurately called the granny rule, has been used by the Republic in the past to acquire players for the national team.
Tantalisingly, given all of the above, an uncapped Harry Kane (through an Irish grandparent) would have been entitled to play for the Irish senior team.
Returning to Rice, it seems at first glance that Fifa’s regulations mandate that Rice can only play for the Republic. Article 5 (2) of Fifa’s regulations clearly state: “any player who has already participated in a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition of any category or any type of football for one association may not play an international match for a representative team of another association”.
The problem is that Article 8 of Fifa’s regulations provides an exception to the rule.
Article 8 says that if, as Rice does, a player has more than one nationality, he may request to change the association for which he is eligible to play international matches (Ireland) to the association of another country of which he holds nationality (England), subject to conditions.
The Article 8 condition which is most relevant to Rice is that “He has not played a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition at “A” international level for his current association…”
Rice has only ever played in friendly matches for the Republic at the “A” or senior level and thus is entitled to apply to Fifa to declare for England and switch association from the FAI to the FA.
Article 8 is the rule that former Republic of Ireland U21 international Jack Grealish used to switch from the Republic to England.
Grealish remains uncapped at senior level for England but can never “re-declare” for the Republic because Article 8 only allows you to switch football association once.
A player’s right to play with one country through underage and right up to senior level (shy of a competitive game) seems an overly broad exception.
Although England manager Gareth Southgate is quite entitled to speak to Rice, the fact that under current Fifa regulations players can transfer allegiance at a very late stage means some might be vulnerable to being, in football speak, “tapped up” to change from one country to another.
In this though, there will be little sympathy in Northern Ireland, especially at IFA level, for the Republic’s plight with Rice given what they perceived happened with James McClean, Shane Duffy, and others.
Overall, it might be better if Article 8 had an earlier cut-off point. Under current Fifa regulations, the international transfer of club players is only permitted if the player is over 18 (subject to conditions).
Similarly, the transfer of a player’s national allegiance could be prohibited once the player reaches 18 (subject to conditions).
There is a long history in football of players switching nationality, including some of the greatest to ever play the game. Alfredo Di Stéfano won six caps and a Copa America with his native Argentina in 1947 but played over 30 times for Spain.
He helped Spain to reach the 1962 World Cup but got injured. In that same Spanish squad was Ferenc Puskás, the legendary Hungarian international who led his native country at the 1954 World Cup.
There was a decade between Di Stefano’s last cap for Argentina and his first for Spain. Puskás declared for Spain because he effectively lost his nationality on refusing to return to Hungary after the Soviets invaded in 1956.
A more modern example is that of current Belgian international Adnan Januzaj. When he broke into the Manchester United first-team in 2013, the then England manager Roy Hodgson expressed an interest in selecting the Brussels-born teen who had yet to declare for a country.
Hodgson was told that under Fifa residency rules he would have to wait until 2018 to pick him and even then Januzaj would become eligible for all of the four ‘home’ nations.
In the meantime, Hodgson was told that Januzaj was eligible to play for Albania, Serbia, Kosovo (parents); Turkey (grandparents); and Belgium (birth).
Outside of football, several sports have had to tighten up their nationality rules because some countries, in search of immediate glory, have expedited their citizenship processes to draw talent.
At the 2016 Olympics, for example, Qatar was represented by 39 athletes across 10 different sports. Only 16 were born in Qatar.
Ultimately, what seems to be exercising people most about Rice are not the legalities but that he (or his agent) has seemingly put a price on his nationality, valuing it against better future pay, transfer fees and sponsorship opportunities.
For many, nationality is always a stick and never a twist, but Irish sporting identity is not that straightforward.
In 2008, Martin O’Neill spoke at Áras an Uachtaráin on Irishness. He recounted his GAA roots; his subsequent love for soccer (and a ban from GAA); making a living and raising a family in England; captaining Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; and managing Celtic. He is now manager of the Republic who, if he was a footballer today, he would probably opt to play for.
That is a lot to take in. No wonder Rice needs time because, to quote Fats Waller again, it’s only easy when you know how.
Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne
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