BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — Preparing for a tournament debut with England, Declan Rice beamed when he recalled the thrill of experiencing the World Cup three years ago as a fan.
Holidaying in Dubai during the offseason, the West Ham midfielder joined supporters packed into a dome in the desert nation watching Gareth Southgate’s team make a run to the semifinals in Russia.
“The World Cup was buzzing,” Rice said Wednesday. “It was incredible. The singing before the game, the national anthem. Just being a part of it. I was a fan for that tournament so to be part of this tournament is unbelievable.”
Yet this potential starter in midfield for England in its European Championship opener against Croatia on Sunday wasn’t even eligible to play for the country during the 2018 World Cup.
Only weeks before being part of the electric fan screenings, Rice was playing for Ireland. That June 2, 2018 appearance against the United States, though, turned out to be his third and final for the country of his paternal grandparents’ birthplace.
There were still months of deliberations about whether to formally switch allegiance to England. Playing competitively for Ireland rather than in friendlies would commit him to that national team for the rest of his career.
A request was eventually submitted to FIFA in February 2019 to represent England, given Gareth Southgate’s interest in selecting the London-born Rice, and a month later he made his second international debut.
Rice described it as “not a clear-cut, simple selection,” a difficult decision for a player who was only 20 at the time with not only a career to think about but the difficulties of being mixed nationality.
Squads at Euro 2020, which starts on Friday, feature 17 players who have officially changed nationality and 175 have dual nationality, according to a tally by The Independent news website.
It was a predicament Jack Grealish had to confront after playing for Ireland’s youth teams while being chased by England.
The pathway, though, looked to be into the Ireland senior side after playing for the under-21s six times and being named their player of the year.
“It was just my grandparents who are Irish,” Grealish later reflected, “and when I was a young kid I was playing for Ireland because that’s what felt right.”
Then in 2015, the Birmingham-born determined it was the Three Lions he wanted to represent.
“There was a time when I thought, ‘Obviously I am English, my parents were born in England, I was obviously born in England, so I feel English’,” Grealish recalled on Wednesday. “So yes, I obviously changed to England and since then I never looked back.”
There was a lot of waiting around for the call from England manager Gareth Southgate, though. The Aston Villa forward had to wait five years after picking England, until last September, to be handed his England debut after declaring for the country.
“I never looked back,” the 25-year-old Grealish said. “I’ve enjoyed every moment.”
Now Grealish is one of 11 players in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad with fewer than 10 caps. Just like Rice, who now draws on those memories of being a fan in 2018 to know how much progressing at the Euros will mean to the country he now represents.
“Growing up watching England in tournaments as well … you just feel the proper buzz, the effects and the desire of the country for the players to do well,” Rice said. “It was like that, even in Dubai. There were thousands of English fans.
“You see when (Kieran) Trippier scored (in the semifinal loss to Croatia), all the fan zones in England going crazy. That’s what I want to be a part of now. I just can’t wait to experience this and just get the real buzz and excitement of the tournament.”
It is a tournament that doesn’t feature Ireland which failed to qualify among the 24 finalists.
And there’s one thing Rice didn’t do while watching England as a fan — join in downing beer and throwing pints in the air.
“Until this day I have never had a beer and I am 22,” Rice told reporters, sitting on a bench at England’s St. George’s Park training base. “We’ll have a pint together if we win it.”
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