wsc302 The rules which determine international eligibility must be looked into, argues Steve Menary

Equatorial Guinea's run to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations augurs badly for the credibility of future international tournaments. Only five players in the co-hosts' squad were born in the country. Nine came from Spain, Equatorial Guinea's former colonial rulers, but players such as Thierry Fidjeu and Narcisse Ekanga – the perpetrator of a shocking dive regularly revisited on YouTube – seemingly have no links to Equatorial Guinea at all.

Fidjeu, who was born in Cameroon, admitted in an interview that Equatorial Guinea was his second choice, after he was ignored by his home country. He would not be the first player to switch allegiance after failing to be selected by the land of his birth, but the recent Cup of Nations suggests that some action is needed.

There were no meaningful nationality rules until the 1960s. The first real development came in 1971, when FIFA ruled players could play for the land of their parents if they were not wanted by the land of their birth. Trevor Hockey, who was born in Yorkshire, was called up immediately by Wales.

When Arsenal's double-winning keeper Bob Wilson finally accepted he was unlikely to win a full England cap, he accepted an offer from Scotland manager Tommy Docherty. The future Football Focus presenter went on to provoke a furore when he became the first Englishman to play for Scotland. "The press went mad in Scotland," says Wilson. "My surviving family had to write to the Scotsman to point out that my dad's great-uncle was chairman of Rangers, Lord Provost of Glasgow and opened Hampden Park. I got wellied and still do but I challenge people. It's about having Scottish blood. If my dad had been borough engineer in Hong Kong and I was born there, would I have been Chinese? Of course not."

Wilson's allegiance was short-lived, producing only two caps, but Jack Charlton stretched the rules during his tenure as Republic of Ireland manager. He recruited players such as Andy Townsend, who was born in Kent and started his career at Weymouth but went on to win 70 international caps. With Ireland qualifying for four major finals under Charlton, any misgivings were soon forgotten.

Charlton and Wilson had only been using the existing rules, but in 2000 the Cayman Islands federation set out to abuse these rules by recruiting a squad with no connection to the British overseas territory whatsoever. Football agent Barry McIntosh was charged with finding a squad for a World Cup qualifier with Cuba. All the players needed was a British passport and no previous full-international caps. Manchester United's David May was among those to reject this quixotic offer. But eight players flew to the Caribbean, including Wayne Allison of Tranmere Rovers and Fulham's Barry Hayles.

Many of these players featured for the Caymans in a warm-up game against the US club side DC United, which they lost 5-0. FIFA got wind of this ruse and stepped in before the first leg in Grand Cayman. The Caymans were forced to field a team of local players. They ground out a goalless draw at home, before losing 4-0 in Havana.

Even now, the UK-based players involved are reticent to discuss the farrago, which prompted further changes. At FIFA's 2003 congress, the rules were altered so players can play for the land of their grandparents. The new rules also allow players capped at junior level but entitled to dual nationality to switch, providing they are under 21 and have not played a senior international.

Miralem Pjanic, whose parents fled Yugoslavia during the Balkan War, played and scored for his new home, Luxembourg, at Under-17 and Under-19 level. After signing for Metz in 2008, Pjanic switched his allegiance to Bosnia & Herzegovina. The attacking midfielder, who now plays his club football for AS Roma, has made more than 30 full appearances for the newly independent land of his birth.

At least the likes of Wilson and Pjanic have tangible connections to the country they chose to represent. The same can hardly be said about some of the players used by Equatorial Guinea, whose government offered bonuses to the squad of £630,000 for each of their two group wins, and another £12,500 to each goalscorer.

As the Cup of Nations was organised by the Confederation of African Football, responsibility for an investigation into Equatorial Guinea's antics is their responsibility. Unfortunately, the governing body have a history of inertia on this front. Perhaps FIFA should take action before the next major tournament hosted by an oil-rich country comes around in Qatar 2022 and makes a mockery of the rules.

From WSC 302 April 2012

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