Alex Iwobi of Arsenal is another story of dual nationality issues and a chain of events that throws up some awkward questions about how one of the outstanding young talents in English football has now been lost in the system.
Iwobi is at the other end of his career to other players England have lost to other countries and his performance for Arsenal in their Champions League tie in paris two weeks ago supplied the hard evidence why Arsène Wenger preferred to have the 19‑year‑old in his team at the expense of more established players. The teenager has kept his place in the team and put in a man‑of‑the‑match display against Chelsea last weekend. Yes, these are early days, but Iwobi has already shown a level of football sophistication to make observers envisage a rich career.
“He should be playing for England,” Wenger said in January, and he did for a while. Iwobi made seven appearances for England’s under-16s, three for the under-17s and one at under-18 level and, by all accounts, was happily embedded in the setup. But then the invitations stopped.
“He played for the England youth teams for a while but when it came to the under-19s, they didn’t pick him,” Wenger added , wearing an expression that made it absolutely clear what he thought about it. And now it is too late. Iwobi moved to London at the age of four but he was born in Lagos and after his debut for Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Egypt early this year. That, for England, is the end of it. Fifa’s rules dictate that once a player has been involved in a competitive fixture he is not allowed to switch countries.
The FA’s explanation is that Aidy Boothroyd, in charge of England’s under-19s, simply preferred other players, as every manager is entitled to, in an age group that is regarded as particularly strong, and that Iwobi preferred Nigeria because he felt more of an emotional attachment to the country of his birth.
You will have to decide for yourself whether that is an entirely satisfactory explanation but it is certainly a different version of events to the one emanating from Arsenal, where they believe it is an oversight on the FA’s part and seem puzzled by the apparent lack of effort to make sure Iwobi knew he was wanted in the way, for example, that happened with Jack Grealish.
Ok, perhaps there is a bit of self-interest here from Wenger when playing for England would mean Iwobi not disappearing mid-season every couple of years for the Africa Cup of Nations. Yet Iwobi said himself in January that he would have “loved” to play for England and it would be intriguing to know why the FA did not try harder to make it happen before This year cutoff point.
Hodgson made a personal intervention to ambush the Republic of Ireland’s plans for Grealish. Iwobi, in stark contrast, appears to have slipped away without anything like the same kind of fight.
It certainly wasn’t a snap judgment on the teenager’s part to look elsewhere given his last appearance for England came at under-18 level in October 2013 and it was almost two years later that he grew tired of waiting, registered with Nigeria and made his first couple of appearances in non-binding friendlies. Iwobi has apparently talked of feeling unwanted by England, though, in fairness to the FA, it did presumably play a part that the player’s uncle is Jay-Jay Okocha, football royalty in Nigeria.
The fact remains, however, that Iwobi was in the England system and the relevant people – through carelessness, poor judgment or not being proactive enough, call it what you will – might come to regret what has happened when there is clearly the potential for him to be an international player for many years. He is already keeping Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, once a regular of Hodgson’s squads, out of the Arsenal side and it is worth noting the number of players in England’s latest under-19, under-20 and under-21 squads who are contracted to Premier League clubs but, unlike Iwobi, nowhere near the first team, or out on loan at places including Cambridge, Carlisle and Coventry.
They are still some way behind Iwobi when you consider Thierry Henry’s assessment of the player England have now lost for good. “Alex wasn’t scared against the best team in the world in Camp Nou,” Henry said. “He was brave on the ball, calm in and around the penalty area and justified all the work invested in him by the academy. He works hard, he listens. He is the perfect example of how a kid has to behave to make it to the top.”
* Daniel Taylor (The Guardian).