Choice of the nation

Proposed new rules will mean players under a certain age with dual nationality will be able to choose who they play for. Matthew Taylor looks at the benefits of this scheme

Since 1964, FIFA’s eligibility rules have been based on the principle that, once chosen, a player’s footballing nationality is set in stone. That could change if a proposal to allow players with dual nationality under the age of 20 or 21 to switch the country they represent is ap­proved by the world governing body.

At present, FIFA rules say that any player qualified to represent more than one country has committed himself “when he plays his first international match in an official competition (at what­ever lev­el) for that association”. With the proliferation of youth champ­ion­ships, this means play­ers are often forced to determine their national alleg­iance at the age of 15 or 16. Such rules, the re­formers argue, have be­come “in­­compatible with modern requirements”.

There have long been problems in determining what constitutes an “official competition”. It is generally taken to refer to world championship finals and qualifying matches at senior and youth level, as well as FIFA-sanctioned competitions like the Olympics and continental tournaments such as the European Cham­pionship or the African Cup of Nations. Yet at youth level, in particular, the line between official and unofficial competition is not al­ways clear. Methods of qualification vary be­tween confederations and are frequently al­tered, while it is not unknown for friendlies to be treated retrospectively as qualifying matches for official championships.

As a result, players and national associations are often unclear where they stand. Take Diego Gutierrez, a Colombian-born player with US citizenship who has played  for Chic­ago Fire and Kansas City Wizards. He represented Colombia at youth level, including at the 1989 South American Youth Championship, which was subsequently used to qualify teams for the World Under-17 Championship in Scotland. Yet although Gutierrez didn’t travel to Scotland, it has not been clear whether the South American tournament is deemed “official”. Not wishing to run the risk of fielding an ineligible player, the US federation has steered clear of selecting him.

Much of the pressure for change has come from African nations who complain of a gen­eration of stars “lost” to Europe. France’s successful youth system has been the sub­ject of the most intense criticism. The maj­ority of France’s dual citizens never make it to the full side, but a single cap at youth level renders them ineligible to play for their coun­­try of birth or that of their parents.

Thus players such as Roger Boli and Samassi Abou, neither of whom progressed beyond the French Under-21 team, have been denied an international car­eer with their country of origin, Ivory Coast. The England youth system could sim­ilarly be accused of having prevented Sierra Leone from calling on the services of Chris Bart-Williams, while Chris Kiwomya’s Under-21 England appearances prevented him play­ing for Uganda. Millwall’s Tim Cahill would be qualified for either Australia or Ire­land, but is ineligible because of two appearances for Western Samoa’s Under-20 side when he was only 14. He has threatened to take FIFA to court over the issue.

The new proposal seems a sensible com­promise. The stipulations that any player wish­ing to change allegiance must possess dual nationality when selected for the first time, and that he must not have represented his first country at full international level, would preclude a return to the pre-1964 era when stars such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Ladislao Kubala were free to com­pete for two or even three national teams. The proposal would also combat the serious prob­lem of young players being forced to make such career-defining decisions, often under considerable pressure from federations, clubs, coaches and parents.

How many of the so-called “developing” nations would want to take their pick of players rejected by former col­onial masters remains to be seen. Angola and Mozambique would cer­tainly benefit from being able to include players lost in the Por­tug­uese system, and countries such as Guinea and Ivory Coast would no doubt be eager to pick up dis­carded French youth players. Sen­egal, on the other hand, might be happy to stick with what they’ve got.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month