Natural born footballers

UEFA’s quotas for home-grown players could simply increase the trade in teenage players and lead to more switches in national allegiance, argues Michael Dunne

Where, ask those who condemn the record number of foreigners in British football, will the next generation of England players come from if young English talent is not given its head in the Premiership?

The answer is everywhere and anywhere. With globalisation blurring national identity, the idea that international football inspires a wholesome loyalty among players who return from stuffing their bank accounts in distant leagues to represent the land of their birth is increasingly a misconception. For some time, football has been following the lead of rugby and cricket, where nationality is frequently an issue of convenience rather than patriotism.

Ricardo Abdullah of Santiago de Chile football club has played for Palestine for five years. He does not speak Arabic, but qualifies through his grandfather. He has never visited the territory he represents. Since being recognised by FIFA in 1998, the Palestine FA have shamelessly searched the planet for players of Palestinian ancestry, even advertising in German football magazine Kicker. Chile, which has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East, has proved the richest seam of talent, with up to ten players at a time making the 10,000-mile journey to Qatar, where Palestine play their home fixtures.

In addition to family lineage, FIFA’s residency rules, which permit uncapped players to represent any nation in which they have lived for at least five years, give national-team managers plenty of scope to select players with no ancestors from their “new” country. In recent seasons, Italians Paolo Di Canio and Carlo Cudicini have both been touted in the press as potential England internationals under these regulations.

UEFA’s directive that Champions League squads must contain at least eight home-grown players by 2008 is designed to encourage the development of indigenous talent, but will actually broaden the global options of national-team managers. Clubs can meet the quotas using players from any country who have been developed in their own academy or that of another club from the same national association. These youth products will break into club first teams around the time they are celebrating five years living in their adopted land. Before long, an emerging English left-winger could be blocked from gaining international recognition by a Parisian currently mul­ling over schoolboy terms from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

But why would such a player relinquish his birthright and risk the wrath of his countrymen? Striker Emmanuel Olisadebe chose to play for Poland ahead of his native Nigeria when he grew frustrated at the lack of recognition from the Nigerian Football Association. “I was playing well, scoring goals, won the Polish league and never received a call-up,” Olisa­debe told African Soccer. “Yet players in the Ger­man Third Division, who don’t even command a regular place with their club, were invited [into the Nigeria squad]. I kept asking myself, ‘What’s going on?’”

Being an international footballer gives players the chance to play in the World Cup and puts them in a strong bargaining position when it comes to renegotiating contracts or a transfer. With such a short career and so many players drawn from poor backgrounds, it is no surprise that some accept the first international call-up that comes their way, when the alternative is to wait in hope that they might reach the front of the queue in the country of their birth when more talented contenders for their position finally retire.

Brazilian Deco was called into the Portugal squad just a week after he was granted Portuguese citizenship, resulting in mutinous outbursts from Luis Figo and Rui Costa. The then Porto midfielder silenced their protests by crowning a brilliant debut for his new country with the winning goal – against Brazil.

The prospect of an England v Italy World Cup final in which Carlo Cudicini saves a crucial penalty from Australian Christian Vieri before Canadian Owen Hargreaves wins the match and runs to celebrate with Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson seems remote. But it is only a matter of time before a major international tournament is won by the contribution of a footballer playing against the country of his birth.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month