Gareth Southgate will only pick players 'desperate' to play for England despite fresh Wilfried Zaha questions

Jason Burt
Wilfried Zaha scored a magnificent solo goal for Ivory Coast - REUTERS

Gareth Southgate has said he will pick only players “who are desperate to play for England” and will not be held to ransom by those who threaten to switch their allegiances.

The England manager insisted he should not have to “sell” the idea of playing for one country over another. “If you don’t feel that internal 100 per cent passion for playing for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you,” Southgate stated.

“It should be your desire to do it. Although I’m always willing to sit down with players, it should be them coming to us. I don’t think it’s the same as a club, where you’re trying to sell the benefits of the club and you’re competing against [other clubs]. I get that we are competing against other countries and players want to feel valued at all times. But the inherent desire of wanting to play for your country is the most important thing if you want to be successful.”

Southgate was responding to questions as to why Wilfried Zaha had not been called up by England and had decided to play for the Ivory Coast. He revealed that the Crystal Palace winger was the first player he had met after he was given the job on a permanent basis.

Zaha provoked something of an Internet sensation with his remarkable goal for the Ivory Coast in their friendly victory over Russia on Friday. It prompted a significant reaction, with Palace chairman Steve Parish taking to Twitter to state: “Never wavered in my belief of ‪@wilfriedzaha, why is this goal not for ‪@England? Thanks be Wilf is ‪#cpfc, So proud!”

Southgate said Parish’s comments were not “helpful” and explained why he had not selected Zaha, who has won two caps for England in friendlies, but has not played since 2013, and recently decided to play for the country of his birth instead.

“I don’t think anyone would have questioned Roy [Hodgson] for not bringing him last season,” Southgate said. “And September would have been similar, I think. I had three days to pick a squad in October so I was always going to pick players I knew and then November I had the chance to look a little bit further but we’d won the game in October and I was pleased with the squad.

“I saw him [Zaha] at Burnley when he was OK in the first-half and very good in the second. But I didn’t really appreciate there was this disappearing egg-timer on going to the Ivory Coast, and, of course, I was interim manager at the time. He was the first player I went to see when I got the job permanently but he had already made his mind up to go across to the Ivory Coast. That was the chain of events.”

Southgate, who was appointed permanent manager at the end of November, explained further: “I went to meet him at Hull [on Dec 9] and I went to the [Palace] team hotel and we had a good chat because obviously I’d picked him for the [England] Under-21s. Obviously he’d dropped out of that a bit. It wasn’t a great moment for him, he was struggling to settle at Man United, by his own admission, had a difficult loan spell at Cardiff and at that stage others were ahead of him. 

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“For me, I’ve never questioned his talent and it’s nice to see him play with a smile on his face and having an impact. Obviously I know the chairman has a quite vociferous view on it.”

What did he make of Parish’s comments? “I’m not sure it’s helpful to comment, like I wouldn’t comment on his decisions and we’re both in important roles,” Southgate said. “He is passionate about his football and his players. I spoke to him during that process as well and he was keen to push that forward and I totally understand it. 

“But I go back to that it was really small timescale for me to pick him [Zaha]. I didn’t want to pick him just because there was a chance that might happen. But first opportunity I had as permanent manager I did go and speak to him.”

The Zaha situation opens up a wider debate on player eligibility. “We’ve always got to have in our mind that there’s a hell of a lot of youngsters in our system, from 15s up who are dual nationality or more,” Southgate said. “So there’s a constant dilemma. [Ben] Woodburn [the 17-year-old Liverpool forward] would be an example.

Ben Woodburn is also eligible to play for Wales Credit: EPA

“He had a training camp with us, two training camps with Wales, and you run the risk, when you leave players out of squads, of them going across to another country. But in the end I have to focus on players who are desperate to play for England.”

It is an attitude that would appear to run contrary to the Football Association having a ‘department’ actively seeking eligible players, as Southgate’s predecessor Sam Allardyce revealed. The example of Steven Nzoni – born in France but ‘eligible’ through residency as he lived in England for six years – was cited.

“I don’t have to take a lot of those calls; that’s Dan Ashworth’s role [FA technical director] – around player eligibility and the system. 

“For me, when you’re building an international team, [Jermain] Defoe is a classic example – his whole life has been a desire to play for England right from Under-16s all the way through. I don’t think if you’d approached him later to play for someone else that he’d have done it. 

“That’s where I was with it – I didn’t get capped until I was 25 and I had no interest in playing for anyone else. I’m English and proud to be English and I think part of your identity as a national team has to be pride in the shirt. So the commitment has to come from the player.”

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