On the 10th November 1992, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a certain Wilfried Zaha was born. Four years later the young Zaha, along with his Mother, Father and eight siblings, were on their way to England, making roots in Croydon. At the age of 12, Zaha joined the Crystal Palace academy and went on to make his full debut for the side in 2010.
After a string of impressive performances, Zaha was called up to the England U-19 squad in 2011. Upon becoming a regular fixture in the Crystal Palace side, he progressed to England’s under 21 side where he made 13 appearances, scoring once. Continued success at Palace resulted in a call up to the senior national team in November 2012, the winger earned his first cap in a 4-0 friendly victory over Sweden coming off the bench to replace Raheem Sterling. One more cap followed against Scotland in 2013.
Having made the leap to Manchester United in 2013, Zaha struggled and was demoted from the senior National team back to the under 21’s. His failure to adapt to life in Manchester and poor form on the pitch meant he was not only overlooked by his club manager, David Moyes, but also by then England manager Roy Hodgson. Zaha subsequently left Old Trafford in 2015, returning to more familiar surroundings at Selhurst Park.
The fleet-footed winger hasn’t looked back since, going from strength to strength upon his return to Palace. His pace and trickery strikes fear into many a Premier League defender and his exciting, direct style of play has earned him rave reviews from many within the football world. His importance to Crystal Palace was recognised when he received Palace’s player of the year award at the end of the 2015/16 season beating the likes of Yannick Bolasie and Yohan Cabaye, both recognised internationals to the award. Yet Zaha still hasn’t been recalled to the England squad. Earlier this year the 24-year-old made the decision to switch his international allegiance to the country of his birth, Ivory Coast, and earlier this week he was named in their squad for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.
So, have England missed a trick here? Often criticised for playing slow, boring football, a player with Zaha’s qualities would surely have gone a long way to change that perception of the England side. A skilful, direct winger with the ingenuity to bamboozle defenders, Zaha could’ve offered England something they seem to lack, he has the ability to change the game with a moment of genius and his electrifying pace makes him a constant threat on the counter. Still only 24 years of age, Zaha would be just entering his prime by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around and would undoubtedly still be a viable option for the following Euro’s given that he maintains his form at club level.
England’s reluctance to recall Zaha and play him in a competitive game, making him ineligible to switch allegiances, is a mistake which they can’t afford to repeat. The fact new England manager Gareth Southgate tried fervently to dissuade Zaha from choosing to play for Ivory Coast shows that a player with Zaha’s traits and natural flair would’ve been valued under the new regime. The failure to include Zaha in past England squads is a sad indictment of the tenure of Roy Hodgson. Often choosing to employ a conservative, mild-mannered approach Hodgson’s reign was typified by the lack of a maverick such as Zaha, a problem with which England have suffered with for some time now.
Hopefully, with a new manager at the helm, England will act quicker in recognising young, exciting talent with a number of players in the under-age sides seeming to such capabilities. However, England seem to have already lost another future star with Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi opting to play for Nigeria rather than England. Iwobi was born in Lagos, Nigeria but grew up in England like Zaha. Having also represented England at various youth levels, Iwobi has chosen to play for Nigeria at senior international level. The powerful forward has impressed on a number of occasions so far this season since breaking into Arsenal’s first team and he seems to be another talent that has slipped through England’s fingers.
With a limited talent pool to choose from it’s imperative that England secure the services of their brightest stars early on. But why are players such as Iwobi choosing to play for other countries rather than England? Surely England are a more prestigious footballing nation than Nigeria? Shouldn’t they be the more enticing option? In my opinion that was the main problem with previous England regimes. The brand of football they played simply wasn’t enticing. It was slow and boring and with managers like Roy Hodgson, the prospect of playing for England, when you have other options, simply doesn’t seem an enjoyable one.
The FA need to do more to capture the imagination of the youth and reinvent the England squad. From an outside point of view the seemingly bureaucratic approach the managers have taken has totally failed. From banning wives and girlfriends at camps to strict curfews and a general lack of interaction from players with public during tournaments have perhaps contributed to dissuading young players like Iwobi from choosing to play for England. Maybe a fresh, more open approach to management could improve England’s chances of securing the services of their dual-nationality prospects.
With Gareth Southgate now in charge, a younger manager who should be more capable of relating to younger players than previous managers, the England team should look a more attractive option to youth players of dual-nationality. Given his experience working with the England under 21’s, Southgate should be aware of some of the dual-national prospects in the England prospects and therefore should have one eye on the future when selecting his future squads. As a seemingly more personable, approachable manager, Southgate has the personal credentials that should appeal to younger players but he also has the chance to change England’s footballing culture by deploying a more attacking, exciting brand of football that would only further entice players to play for England.
With prospects like Jordan Ibe, Ademola Lookman, Tammy Abraham, Dominic Iorfa, Ola Aina, Josh Onomah, Chuba Akpom and Dominic Solanke all eligible for Nigeria having represented England at youth level, not to mention Brendan Galloway being eligible for Zimbabwe or Rolando Aarons being eligible for Jamaica, that is a significant proportion of England’s youth set up that could potentially opt to play for another country. Those are just the more prominent names, with a significant proportion of England’s other youth sides being eligible for other countries.
The importance of ensuring that players of dual-nationality opt to play for your country can’t be overstated. Would France have won the World Cup in 1998 if Patrick Vieira chose to play for Senegal, Zinedine Zidane opted for Algeria or Marcel Desailly chose to play for Ghana? Probably not. Just look at the recent Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal, a total of 16 players who played in that game have African heritage. While 43 players of African heritage played in the tournament overall. Whether or not a player of dual-nationality chooses to play for your country can truly shape the prospects and fortunes of nation for years to come. Having missed out Zaha and Iwobi it’s crucial that England can secure the services of their stars of the future.
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