Whilst most sports have scoffed at the likes of cricket and tennis, it is now becoming more common in football that players are switching nationalities from youth to senior level, or playing for countries outside of their birth.
As a result of globalisation, which is primarily a good thing for society, we are seeing the issue arise in the media spotlight more frequently and an increase in the amount of players who are applying to switch nationalities. Only yesterday there were two examples of international call-ups that have ignited the issue. They are both very different tales. One is a case of a man, Shola Ameobi, who played for England at youth level, and perhaps envisaged he would play for the senior England side one day, and has accepted that he isn’t, and therefore has stated that he wants to play for his country of birth, Nigeria, to whom he was given his first call-up for a friendly against Venezuela next week. The other case is of a man, Carl Jenkinson, who at Charlton Athletic probably envisaged he would never play for England and therefore decided to represent Finland under-19’s, has realised that he is actually wanted by England and as a result has just had international clearance to play against Sweden next week.
Other examples domestically include Victor Moses, who played for England at youth level, and who now plays for Nigeria, and perhaps most famously Ryan Giggs, who played for England at youth level and then chose to represent his country of birth, Wales. This issue is not a new phenomenon in football either. Between 1946 and 1961, Laszlo Kubala played for three international sides – Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Spain, whilst Michel Platini was able to play for both France and then a game for Kuwait in the 1980’s.
Last month, in my disappointment of England’s game in Poland being postponed I decided to watch the Belgium versus Scotland game. With four minutes remaining, Genk’s Ilombe Mboyo replaced Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke for the home side. When the commentator revealed that both players were actually born in the Congo, ESPN’s co-commentator Craig Burley, who was probably a bit hacked off by Scotland’s performance by now, exclaimed, ‘It’s ridiculous, you should play for the country from where you are born and that should be that’.
So does Craig Burley have a point? Should players have to play for their country of birth, or at the very least not switch allegiances once they have made a decision at youth level upon which country they should play for?
Since the crazy days of Kubala playing for three countries and Platini playing for Kuwait, FIFA has become stricter on their eligibility regulations. From 2004, they have stated that players must have a ‘clear connection’ with the country they represent. For those readers who haven’t revised the FIFA Statute yet (it’s an enthralling read), I will let you in on what Article 17 states. There are three main premises on which a player is allowed to play for their country. The first obvious one is if you’re born in the country you wish to represent, the second being if you’re parents or grandparents were born in the country you wish to represent, and thirdly, if you have lived in the country you wish to represent from the age of 18. In regards to switching nationalities from youth level to senior level, a player must apply for the change to be made before the age of 21. Additionally, once a player plays a competitive match for one country, they cannot go on to play for another.
So it is primarily a question of whether one perceives these rules to be too relaxed. I think that generally, FIFA’s eligibility rules are fair enough. For example, with regards to Shola Ameobi, although he may have live in England most of his life, he was born in Nigeria, his parents are Nigerian, he sees himself as Nigerian, there are no reasons as to why he shouldn’t play for them. My only gripe with the striker’s decision is that if Ameobi feels so strongly about being Nigerian, as he claims to do, then why was he turning out for the England under-21’s ten years ago? I believe that every player should state in their first professional contract the country they wish to represent and stick with it. It would surely avoid so much confusion.
I believe that the other limitation with the current rule is for a player being able to represent a country based on the player’s grandparents being born there. Unfortunately, it has invited managers in the past to take liberties with the rule and look to manipulate the rules slightly on eligibility in order to get their player to represent their country. It has also reduced the pride of playing international football. My case in point her is West Brom’s James Morrison, who was born in Darlington, but plays for Scotland through his grandmother. His reasoning for playing for Scotland was that, and I quote, ‘opportunities for England will be limited’. If I was Scottish, quotes like this wouldn’t exactly make me jump up and get my kilt from the wardrobe and start playing the bagpipes along to the Proclaimers at full blast in celebration of being proud to be from north of the border.
The dilemma is that the issue is just so complex and there are so many different individual cases that can cause problems. As a result, the rule can just become comical. For example, the now former Scotland boss Craig Levein tried desperately to getting the 17-year-old LA Galaxy striker Jack McBean, who is born and has been raised in America all his life, but with Scottish parents, to play for the Tartan Army. Levein admitted to being on the phone to McBean’s dad trying to persuade him to get his son to play for Scotland, which just made Levein appear daft and desperate.
Another individual case that caused problems for FIFA was that of Ryan Shawcross’, who was born in England with English parents, raised in Wales, played in England, represented Wales and then England at youth level, was subject to a call-up from Wales and has taken the decision to play for England, it’s just exhausting! As a result of Shawcross, FIFA changed the ruling in 2009 to allow a player who has had five years compulsory education to decide which country he wants to play for.
Whilst Craig Burley’s comments may have been misguided in regards to Mboyo and Benteke, you can’t help feel that life would be much easier if player’s took his advice and represented the country of their birth.
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