The Geographies of Sport, Migration and National Identity

Dr David Storey is a Principal Lecturer in Geography at the University of Worcester. In this Academic Blog he explores how international football can shine a light on the complex nature of national identity:

At the recent African Cup of Nations finals tournament which took place in Cameroon, almost one third of the players participating were born in a country other than the one they were playing for. The vast majority of these players were born in Europe, over 100 of them in France, with others drawn from Spain, Portugal, England, Belgium and elsewhere. Teams such as that of the Comoros Islands are composed mostly of French-born players of Comoran descent. 


Comoros Islands

Back in 2018 when France won the men’s football World Cup, it led to joyous scenes of flag-waving and public displays of national euphoria throughout the country. The victory celebrations in Paris featured images of the players beamed onto the Arc de Triomphe. These images were accompanied by the names of the places in France where each member of the team grew up. However, the backgrounds of the players reveal a much more complex and geographically and culturally diverse picture that extends well beyond the borders of France. The majority of the players had close family ties to a number of African countries. At the 2021 men’s European Championships, 13 of the countries competing included footballers with African family connections. A total of 57 players involved in the tournament could have elected to play for an African country. In this way, it could be suggested that 26 African countries were ‘represented’ at the finals of this European competition. 



 All this highlights just some of the ways through which sport is inextricably entwined with issues of citizenship, nationality and migration, raising questions of belonging and cultural affinity. These issues form the subject matter of my recent book (Football, Place and National Identity. Transferring Allegiance), which focuses on international representation in men’s football and the identity choices made by players who are eligible to play for two or more countries. Increasing flexibility of regulations governing international eligibility in sport means that countries can potentially select from a considerably wider pool of talent, drawing on players with ethnic, cultural or residency connections to the country, not just those born there. This broadening of sporting citizenship has led to an increasing prevalence of what has been termed ‘nationality swapping’.

International representative teams appear to be becoming more trans-national with players born outside that country, but often with family connections to it, playing in the national colours. Place of birth, family origins and residency can be used to enlarge the player pool. From the point of view of national footballing associations there is a desire to select the strongest possible team. This involves using the regulations in order to capture talent that may have been born and raised elsewhere. While France has drawn on players born in African countries but brought up in France, more recently, as already noted, this trend has been reversed with many African countries selecting European-born players whose family origins lie in Africa, thereby reclaiming some of the descendants of their extensive migrant communities. In this way, historical colonial relationships and associated migration flows provide the backdrop to the more eclectic nature of national representative teams.  Elsewhere, countries such as the Republic of Ireland have long relied on the extensive Irish community in Britain to broaden the pool of available footballing talent. For the footballers themselves and other sportspeople, family background provides them with options in terms of sporting citizenship. 


Nationality Football

These switches in nationality cast light on the complexities of ethnic and national identity. Responses to the phenomenon from supporters, media and those involved in sport range from narrow essentialist and exclusionary views of national identity through to those which might be seen as more progressive, inclusionary and flexible, albeit driven in some instances by sporting pragmatism. For some, these apparent shifts in national allegiance could best be described as accommodatory, in which the more varied backgrounds of sportspeople are seen as either a pragmatic way of enlarging the available pool of talent and/or of widening the ethno-cultural understanding of the nation. For others, there are varying shades of reluctance or resistance to embrace the phenomenon. In some instances, this appears linked to a narrow conceptualisation of the nation and a concern that its purity is being diminished. While some observers might prefer to see identity in simplistic either/or terms, for many the reality is much more complex. Reducing the multi-layered backgrounds of the players to a singular identity makes little sense.

Whatever the feelings and motivations of players, the declaration of a sporting nationality that may differ from an ‘official’ one reinforces the need to see identities as fluid, flexible and contingent rather than fixed and unchanging. The way in which international football is framed means players have to choose a national identity, albeit options may still remain to change that decision. While a singular identity must be publicly assumed for sporting purposes, it does not follow that this fully reflects the felt identity of the individual.

Football Stadium

 More broadly, these questions of sporting representation draw attention to varying forms of citizenship in which some people might be seen to be more closely connected to a country than others. They also shed light on the ways in which international footballers (and other sportspeople) negotiate their citizenship while juggling their career concerns, sense of self, and familial links. Rather than a ‘standard’ notion of citizenship, there is a somewhat more geographically diverse set of options available to some players. The complex connections between place of birth, residency and ancestry need to be considered rather than reducing this to a singular idea of citizenship. A player’s identity space may be one that links them to more than one country, pointing to a need to explore the ways in which individual identities may be entwined with multiple places transcending the confines of the bounded nation-state.


David Storey book 1

The declaration of a sporting nationality that may differ from an ‘official’ one casts light on ideas of cultural hybridity and highlights the need to see identities as somewhat more fluid and flexible. What once may have seemed relatively straightforward has now become more complex, moving away from a narrow singular sense of the nation. Football, therefore, provides much scope for an exploration of themes of identity at various spatial scales - national, regional and local. International sport provides a particularly useful lens through which to explore the intersections between geographical concepts of territory and place and how these intersect with senses of national identity.  

Dr David Storey’s research and teaching interests cover aspects of territory and identity, sport and place, rural change and development. He has published widely on these topics, including his most recent published book, ‘Football, Place and National Identity: Transferring Allegiance’ (published 2021) and has delivered papers at various international conferences.

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