The proliferation of cases involving players with fake passports has led to questions being raised about the right of many foreign-born footballer to play in Europe. But, as Pierre Lanfranchi and Matthew Taylor argue, dual nationality itself is not the issue

Nationality, as certain European football clubs are discovering to their cost, is not necessarily a straightforward matter. Just ask fans of St Etienne, who saw their club drop five places in the French league in January when the league’s judicial commission judged that two of the club’s players, the Brazilian Alex and the Ukrainian Maxim Levitsky, had been using false European Union passports. The initial penalty of seven points was first reduced on appeal then reinstated, making their position one place off the bottom of the league even more perilous

The St Etienne case is only the most serious of what seems to have become a Europe-wide bogus passport epidemic. French champions Monaco successfully appealed against a two point penalty imposed for fielding the Chilean-born Pablo Contreras who held a fake Italian passport while Metz, whose Colombian goalkeeper Farid Mondragón played under a false Greek passport, were cleared of any wrong doing because in their case the limit of three non-EU players had not been breached. In Italy, the cases of over 20 players suspected of holding fake or falsely obtained passports are currently under investigation. The Spanish and English football authorities, meanwhile, have both launched investigations into the authenticity of the passports of their non-European workforce.

The present problems are the outcome of a variety of developments. The top European leagues have long been attractive for South American, African and eastern European footballers in search of fame and fortune. But whereas the labour market used to be divided mainly between nationals and foreigners, the most important distinction today is between the EU and non-EU player. There are obvious benefits in being recognised as an EU footballer. Not only does movement between employers become much easier but also wages are significantly higher. For clubs hemmed in by work permit restrictions and rules lim­iting the number of players from outside the EU, foot­ballers with two passports are a particularly valuable commodity.

The role of the various parties in the acquisition of these passports is not altogether clear. In the St Etienne case, both players and the club’s deputy president Gerald Soler – best known in this country as the scorer of France’s goal in their 3-1 defeat against England in Bilbao in 1982 – received suspensions for their involvement. Monaco and Metz convinced the league that they were unaware that their employees were carrying false passports. Such a defence may not be sufficient for Italian clubs, who have been informed by their federation that they could lose points or even be automatically relegated irrespective of whether or not they had acted in good faith.

Not surprisingly, most players have claimed to be innocent victims of unscrupulous agents or club officials. Yet it is doubtful whether agents are always the instigators. One recently told the Brazilian Congressional commission of inquiry that it was Portuguese immigration officials who had provided him with counterfeit passports for two Brazilian players without his knowledge. Likewise, evidence of Juan Sebastián Verón’s alleged Italian ancestry seems to have been secured through forged papers provided by a council employee in Calabria. Indeed Verón’s case illustrates the pervasiveness of the problem. Along with Verón himself, the Lazio chairman Sergio Cragnotti, two club officials, two agents and a translator for the council which provided the false documentation have all been charged.

In many respects, the present passport scandal is nothing new. In 1972, the Spanish league refused to validate the transfers of the Argentinians Heredia and Echecopar to Barcelona and Granada respectively on the basis that their Spanish descent could not be proved. Incensed by the decision, Barcelona sent their lawyer to South America to gather evidence, which showed that the majority of birth certificates used by the so-called oriundi (South American players of European descent) were false. In one particular case, an Argentinan player had written in his claim for a Spanish passport that his father had been born in a city called “Celta de Vigo”. Seven years later a further series of scandals over false birth certificates convinced the Spanish authorities to reduce the number of oriundi at each club to one.

So there have always been ways of getting around the regulations but there is a more fundamental point which emerges from all this. Football’s governing bodies, in common with most sporting organisations, have always struggled to deal effectively with the complexities of nationality and citizenship. Since 1964, when FIFA decided that a footballer could not represent more than one national side in his career, football has divorced itself from the normal rules of citizenship. Nationality in football is singular: one can either be French or Moroccan, Italian or Argentinian, Brazilian or Portuguese, but not both. While this approach may well be appropriate for national teams, it has become too inflexible to deal with the realities of an increasingly mobile and global labour force.

There have always been footballers with two or more passports. In the 1930s, many of the players who left Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to join Italian and Spanish clubs were sons of European immigrants. Raimundo Orsi, Luis Monti and Miguel Andreolo were all legally treated as Italians who were free to compete for their “second home”. Similarly today, many of the Australian players moving to European football have dual citizenship through parentage. Other footballers have been able to acquire European citizenship through birth in a particular territory or simply through long-term residence. None of this is shady, irregular or improper: it is in keeping with the various citizenship laws of EU nations.

The incidents of false documents and fake pass­ports are clearly worrying and need to be dealt with by Europe’s football and criminal authorities. But dual nationality itself is not a crime. In fact, it seems to be an appropriate way of dealing with the complex identities that emerge in a world in which people (and not just footballers) are increasingly on the move and live in more than one country.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month

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