Many eyes tonight will be on Eduardo da Silva, the Brazilian who plays for Croatia (and the man Arsenal fans will remember as one of their most promising strikers until he suffered a terrible leg break that almost ended his career). By all accounts, if he starts, Eduardo will sing both national anthems before the opening match: one for the place he grew up in (he was born and raised in Rio) and one for the place he adopted as home in his late teens (he moved to Zagreb when he was 16). He took up Croatian citizenship at 19 and made his debut for the national team two years later. He is Croatia’s second highest international goal scorer, with 29 goals in 63 appearances.
What’s interesting about Eduardo is that, as Cameron said to Blair, he was the future once. Around ten years ago it looked as though national football teams would see more and more of this sort of carpet-bagging, with players switching national identity to find a convenient home where they could be sure of a international career. Wouldn’t everyone soon have a Brazilian or two to flesh out their national teams with a bit more firepower? It hasn’t happened. If anything, the trend has gone the other way. Though players move around from club to club with more freedom than ever, national sides have remained remarkably homogeneous. The Brazilians in this tournament are almost all playing for Brazil. Most European national sides consist of homegrown talent, even though their domestic leagues are stuffed with players drawn from all over: look at England (it’s true Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica but he moved here when he was five). There was a half-hearted attempt to recruit Man U’s boy wonder Adnan Januzaj but in the end he went for the country he was born and brought up in, Belgium. The current ‘golden generation’ of Belgian footballers that makes them one of the most exciting teams in the tournament – Kompany, Fellaini, Dembele, Mirallas, Hazard, Lukaku – is a wonderfully diverse ethnic mix. But every one was born in Belgium.
It’s not just football. The England cricket team that takes the field today for the First Test is more English than for many years, now Kevin Pietersen is gone and Jonathan Trott is hors de combat. Five years ago it was more like a hybrid English-South African side (or as the South Africans said, more like their second eleven). British tennis, bar Andy Murray, is in such a parlous state because Greg Rusedski didn’t herald an age of interlopers wrapping themselves in the Union Jack for convenience. We are stuck trying to make do with the talent we’ve got, which is not a lot. Most sportsmen and women still seem to want to represent their country of origin.
What’s the moral? Well, I hesitate to draw too many parallels between sport and politics (though I don’t suppose that will stop me as the tournament goes on). But people who believed that the age of globalisation would herald the erosion of national identity are clearly wrong. Yes, it’s easier to move around and sell your labour wherever the rewards are greatest (those Belgian players I listed all play in the English Premier League). No, that doesn’t mean the pull of the mother country is dead. That, for better or worse, is why this tournament still matters.