Stopping the naturalized citizen trend

April 24, 2005
MosseBy David Mosse
(Archive)

The time has come for FIFA to examine an increasing trend that threatens to undermine the integrity of the international game -- the use of naturalized citizens. Unless the eligibility standards are changed, coaches will soon be forced to devote practice time to teaching players the words to their country's national anthem.

While minnows have long effectively borrowed ringers to bolster their squads, sadly, some of soccer's biggest powers are resorting to the same practice. If Portugal and Germany meet in the Final of the 2006 World Cup, two Brazilian-born goalscorers might decide the outcome.

At the behest of Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, former Porto and current Dynamo Moscow striker Derlei, who recently adopted Portuguese citizenship, is reportedly contemplating the same move Deco made two years ago -- representing the Portuguese national team.

Like most in Portugal, Scolari recognizes the country's desperate need for someone to pounce on all the opportunities likely to be created next summer by Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and co., and is willing to explore all options, even venturing outside his current pool of players.

Germany will be leaning on Stuttgart striker Kevin Kuranyi to bang home the goals, much like he did in a recent friendly against his native Brazil -- being scored upon by fellow countrymen is nothing new to Brazilians, as Deco capped his Portuguese debut by scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over Brazil.

If Kuranyi fails to deliver, the Germans will turn to Schalke's Gerald Asamoah, a Ghanaian-born striker who became a German citizen in 2001. The sight of Asamoah sporting German colors might seem downright comical, but it is no stranger than Nigerian-born Emmanuel Olisadebe playing for Poland or Congo-born brothers Emile and Mbo Mpenza representing Belgium.

No laws were broken in any of these cases. The immigration policy in most countries stipulates that once one becomes a citizen he/she is a full-citizen -- equal in all respects to someone born in that country, thus rights are indivisible. Article 18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of FIFA Statutes merely requires players for any national team to be citizens of that country.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of foreign-based players violates the spirit of international competition, and in the process, places fans in an uncomfortable position. Derlei's case has already generated a backlash from a Portuguese public growing weary of the direction its national team is heading towards. A petition has been launched against the selection of the man who helped Porto capture the 2004 Champions' League.

FIFA has intervened in such matters before. In the 1950's when legends Ferenc Puskas (Hungary), Ladislav Kubala (Slovakia) and Alfredo Di Stefano (Argentina) were granted Spanish passports, FIFA promptly banned transfers between national teams, but allowed immigrants and their children to play for their new country, provided they obtained citizenship. What seemed like strict guidelines at the time are in serious need of revision.

While colonial powers such as France and Holland routinely field players of African-descent, at the very least, the players bear some connection to those nations. For example Patrick Vieira of France was born in Senegal but moved to France at the age of eight, and identifies much more readily with the French culture than he does with Senegal.

A distinction must be drawn between cases when a player leaves his country of origin at an early age, spending most of his formative years in his adopted country, and cases when a player is transferred to a foreign club and decides to become a citizen solely for soccer purposes.

Asamoah arrived in Hanover from his hometown of Mampong in Ghana when he was 12, joining his father who had moved to Germany eight years earlier. Fellow Ghanaian Freddy Adu, viewed as the future of American soccer, migrated to the United States with his mother and brother at the age of eight and became an American citizen in 2003.

Certainly, binding a player to the place listed on his birth certificate when, through his life experiences, he truly identifies with a different country is wrong. If a person comes to a decision to take up citizenship in a certain country, independent of his/her ability to play soccer, the person should be entitled to the opportunities that come as a result.

The problem arises when national team coaches look to plug holes in the lineup, by coaxing foreigners to make the switch. While few can quibble with Adu choosing to play for his adopted country, the United States was also involved in perhaps the most egregious example of a country taking advantage of the rules.

Prior the 1998 World Cup, U.S. coach Steve Sampson convinced French defender David Regis, who never lived in the United States and barely spoke a word of English, to obtain American citizenship and help shore up Sampson's back line. Regis was eligible for citizenship in the United States because his wife was American. He agreed only after being told he had no future with the French national team.

Such an example reflects the willingness of coaches to use players who can only be loosely described as nationals. The win-at-all cost mentality not only makes a mockery of the principles of a "national" team, but risks alienating a population that expects to be represented by its own flesh and blood.

A country should not be able to arrange for a good national team; rather it inherits one as a byproduct of fostering a culture where kids incessantly play soccer. Generally, the countries with the best national squads are those who give the most back to the sport. From the perspective of a player, there should be a feeling of pride associated with representing the country that introduced him to the game.

While the quality of a player shouldn't make any difference, someone of Deco's stature has helped shine new light on the issue. The Barcelona midfielder first stepped foot in Portugal at the age of 19, after being sold to Benfica, against his wishes, from Brazilian club Corinthians Alagoano. Deco has since become an elite player and has undoubtedly developed an affinity for the country where he lived for seven years.

Yet, his decision to represent Portugal was based simply on enhancing his chances of playing in the next World Cup. Deco placed multiple calls to Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira to inquire about his prospects of playing for Brazil, and only after not receiving the response he hoped for, did he opt to change his colors. His inclusion in the Portuguese squad for Euro 2004 caused consternation among several others in the team, most notably veteran star Luis Figo who publicly voiced his opposition to Deco's selection.

Has the day arrived when players pick their national teams in the same way they would choose a club - on the basis of playing time? While some argue Brazil missed its chance with Deco, should there really be a statute of limitations for a country to utilize one of its players? No coach should feel the need to call-up a player, strictly to protect against him blossoming into a star and being snatched up by a different country.

It all leads down a dangerous path, unless FIFA exercises some common sense and addresses the situation. At this rate, we could be looking at a very different World Cup some day, one that frighteningly resembles club soccer, with each national team boasting a nucleus of homegrown players, along with a collection of hired guns.

For those misguided souls who do not support Chelsea, Real Madrid or the 10 or so other clubs seemingly determined to buy every single player on the planet, the international arena remains the last bastion of pure, meritocratic soccer. It is FIFA's responsibility to ensure it remains that way.

David Mosse is an assistant editor for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at mosse_david@yahoo.com