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Apr 152014
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Screen Shot 2014 04 15 at 15.47.481 Naturalization in International Football: Changing the Game

Eligibility to play for representative teams -
Articles 15-18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes

The United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) rosters – from youth to the first team – are the epitome of diversity, including such names as Okwuono, Rodriguez, Ocegueda, and Villareal.  This should come as no surprise as one reflects on the fact that America, a country founded by immigrants and one that prides itself on its ever-changing demographics, would have a national team that reflects the diversity of the country’s population.  Similarly, the composition of other national teams has changed to reflect a different kind of diversity – one created by intentional naturalization of talented young footballers.  As a consequence of this naturalization process, national teams whose best players are consistently naturalized by other countries will never be able to properly field the highest quality squad nor will they be able to promote their domestic competitions because of talent flight to more lucrative leagues in Europe.

Some of the countries that participate in these naturalization efforts also have very aggressive anti-immigration policies.  It does not mean that the countries are not already quite diverse – and many are – rather, it suggests that some countries would prefer to shut the door at this point.  A good example is the United States.  Diversity in the composition of the USMNT occurs as a matter of course and is not necessarily contingent upon immigration policies.  An individual born in the United States is automatically a citizen of the United States. Therefore, the availability of talent in the US is, typically, not an issue.  This is not necessarily the case for many other countries, and although they may have tough immigration policies, they tend to show a certain leniency when it comes to the admission of talented soccer players.

A better example is France – a country with a very harsh anti-immigration policy, but with a strong and historic passion for soccer.  Immigration policy in France does not grant automatic citizenship, at birth, to those born in France of foreign parents, and certain procedures must be followed before naturalization is effective.  “French citizenship can be applied for, but is not a right:  The Administration reserves the right to refuse it.  French citizenship can be obtained through naturalization, marriage and birth.”  [Societé Generale Banque & Assurances]  However, in the case of soccer talent, the French government has demonstrated flexibility in accelerating the process of naturalization.  As a result, the French national team has an overwhelming presence of players of foreign origin.  Zinedine Zidane, whose parents were Algerian immigrants, Patrice Evra, who was born in Senegal and Bacary Sagna of Senegalese ancestry, but born in France, who stated his desire to play for the Senegalese national team, but ended up playing for France, are household names, and all three the sons of first generation immigrants.

The professional soccer leagues in Europe are a good example of how easily the composition of a team can change when foreign-born players are introduced.  The impact of the inclusion of foreign players is best observed in the English Premier League – for some, the highest professional soccer league.  In 2012, the Premier League season began with 244 players from 51 different countries, and with each continent represented.  The most diverse club squad fielded 32 players from 19 different nations (Sporting Intelligence).  While some people may have had their doubts about the “Englishness” of the teams in the league, there is no doubt about the global appeal of the league.  This global appeal is largely tied to the fact that fans in almost every country in the world have players from their country represented in the league.  The league owners are well aware of how lucrative the diversity of the league can be, and are willing to grant work permits to nearly every player being recruited by a club.

However, some people in the recruiting nations assert that offering naturalization to any player deemed worthy by those in charge of picking the national team, is disrespectful to the players who are citizens by birth.  Jack Wilshere, who plays for the English national team, stated that, “The only people who should play for England are English people.”  While these comments could be misconstrued as xenophobic or racist, they are purely demonstrating the sentiment of many English-born players when questioned about naturalization.  The English national team is not the only one in the habit of naturalizing players, as teams across Europe have done the same.  Fabio Capello, former coach of the English national team, was critical of the German national team who had naturalized several Turkish players immediately preceding the World Cup tournament of 2010.  “A line needs to be drawn.  Richer clubs are talent-scouting and stealing players by bidding higher and not thinking about the consequences for those countries.  These players are acquiring new passports.  Germany had five of Turkish origin who opted to represent them and we all know what happened.”  Capello bemoans the method of rich national teams luring young players from poorer countries and naturalizing them, and effectively decreasing the talent of their former national team.  It is a process that will essentially allow for only the wealthiest nations to compete in tournaments like the World Cup, and will render obscure the poorer nations whose best players will have departed.  “Decisions need to be made.  Players can be bought, especially when they come from poorer backgrounds.  I do not accept that, having trained a player, a different team can steal the player from me.  UEFA should pass rules allowing people to reap the seed that’s been sown instead of having talents leave when they receive a major offer.”  In his statement, Capello demands action by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations.

In recent times, this debate has become even more controversial.  Big name players and budding youth prospects are voluntarily switching their nationalities or being convinced to do so.  Increases in playing time, the ability to train with players of higher quality, the opportunity to excel on a larger, more celebrated stage and lucrative benefits for themselves and their families are quite convincing offers for many a player – especially one who comes from a poorer background.  However, naturalization is no longer only enticing for players hailing from underdeveloped countries – it is now seen as a relatively quick and effective method of improving one’s team.  Diego Costa, an Atletico Madrid player and currently one of the best strikers in the world, successfully made the transition from the Brazilian to the Spanish national team ahead of this summer’s World Cup, via a speedy naturalization process.  Adnan Januzaj, a Manchester United winger who is of Albanian and Belgian descent, is currently being courted by representatives from each national team who are, respectively, keen to be the first to guarantee his allegiance.  Another good example is Julian Green, an 18 year-old German-American who recently committed his national team future to the USMNT, and whose name has been on the tongues of many excited USMNT supporters in the last few weeks.  This country vs country “tug-of-war” is created by speculation in the media and is fueled by eager football associations lavishly courting players and their families and the unfounded musings of millions of fans.  More often than not, players will choose the option which will offer the best chances of success.

And can you blame them?

Many countries in Africa and similarly, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America, have football associations that are typically poorly funded.  Tournaments in these regions, such as the African Cup of Nations, the Gold Cup, CONCACAF Cup, African Champions League and Asian Champions League are watched far less than other competitions, such as the Champions League, the Euro Cup and the World Cup.  This is due to the amount of exposure FIFA chooses to give them and their exposure is, of course, based on the global interest.  A lack of interest results in FIFA making the former tournaments less of a priority, and it is evident.  If there is a lack of attractive talent, a lack of fan interest is no surprise.  The perfect example is the comparison between the Champions League and the Europa League, the two premier club competitions in Europe, with the best teams from each league participating in a World Cup-like tournament over the course of many months.  In 2012, the cheap seat tickets to the final of the former were more expensive than top price tickets to the latter.  Clearly, fewer people watch the Europa League because the best teams play in the Champions League.  More people want to watch the better competitions, and unless one’s favorite team is playing in the Europa League, one would be far less likely to watch it.

The same is true for national team competitions like the African Cup of Nations, a tournament of African national teams similar to the World Cup.  Considering the tournament was barely broadcast in America, it was nearly impossible to watch the matches.  However, those able to watch the match would have seen half-empty stadiums and generally subdued match atmospheres, with the exception of the semi-final and final.  Despite the tournament showcasing top talent – many of the players appear in the best leagues in the world – the allure of the tournament is nothing compared to the Euro Cup.  The Euro Cup is a highly televised tournament of European soccer teams, taking place once every four years.  The inability of poorer countries to compete for the world’s attention is only exacerbated if the best prospects on the continent leave for Europe, or elsewhere.

Is there a realistic resolution to this problem?  Yes.  Is a resolution the best thing for the game worldwide?  Yes.  Is there even a problem?  Definitely.  One thing is certain: national teams whose best players are consistently naturalized by other countries or acquired by foreign teams will not be able to properly compete on the global scale, and thus they cannot garner the worldwide interest necessary to realistically promote their domestic competitions.  Furthermore, naturalized players may not always feel quite “at home” in their own country, their former countrymen may resent them and their new countrymen may not always accept them – then again, none of that seems to matter when they are on the field.

In the end, the game is all that matters.



Senegalese-American journalism student. Fan of political science & international relations. Strong passion for writing about and playing the beautiful game. Bilingual. Recovering Drogbaholic. Licensed Youth Coach. I call it football, futbol and soccer. Follow me on twitter: More of my writings:

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