Natural selection

Saul Pope looks at two footballers who may go on to represent their adopted countries, and the concerns this has provoked

With Euro 2012 qualification in full swing, Russia will be hoping to join close neighbours and hosts Ukraine at the finals tournament. If they manage to qualify, it will be the first time the two have appeared at a major tournament together. There may be another first, as both sides could feature naturalised black players – Senegalese defender Papa Gueye for Ukraine, and Brazilian forward Welliton for Russia. 

Some fans in both countries have been delighted by this prospect, notably those supporting the clubs of Gueye (Metalist Kharkiv) and Welliton (Spartak Moscow). For Spartak, in particular, there would be an added bonus in Welliton receiving citizenship – he would count as a Russian under the strict 6+5 rule, which has given the club some problems in recent times (see WSC 283).

However, the reaction in the wider football community has been less positive. The racists in both countries have of course spoken out, their aggregate argument being that having “non-Slavs” playing for Russia or Ukraine would set a precedent leading to the two national sides “becoming like the French team”, apparently something to be “ashamed of”. More reasonable voices have noted that both national sides already contain non-Slavs (Everton’s Russian midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, for example, is of ethnic Tatar descent), and that it may be a good thing to look to the French as an example, not least as they generally qualify for major tournaments.

For the majority of the doubters, however, the main issue is a football one – whether Gueye and Welliton are good enough players to represent their national sides. Of the two Gueye tends to have more support – fans on voted him Ukraine’s best foreign player in 2008 and a mural in his honour has been painted in Kharkiv, though problems with his health have seen his form drop recently. He has also lost his main advocate in the national set-up – in August Ukraine (and Metalist) manager Myron Markevich said he “really wanted” Gueye to play for Ukraine, but resigned from the job two weeks later. New caretaker coach Yuri Kalitvintsev, himself a naturalised Ukrainian, has been more vague about whether he would pick him.

Russia coach Dick Advocaat has insisted it’s not even worth considering Welliton for Russia while he isn’t eligible, though his backing would be essential if the forward was to be fast-tracked for citizenship (he doesn’t qualify for standard naturalisation until 2012). His credentials at first glance look impressive: 15 goals in 16 games this season, 45 in 66 overall for Spartak, and 2009’s Premier League top scorer. However, only one of this season’s goals has come against one of the top three league sides, and scoring regularly in the Russian league is no sign of international success – other recent top scorers include Roman Pavlyuchenko, Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Roman Adamov, none of whom has been able to cement a place in the national side. Russian fans generally seem to think of Welliton as a good player, but maybe not better that those already in the national squad.

Another concern for both Ukrainians and Russians is that playing for their countries is merely a convenient option for two players overlooked by their native lands. On Spartak’s official website Welliton described the opportunity to play for Russia as being “a great chance to take one more important step in my professional career” in a country where “like Brazil, football is the number one sport” – making it all sound rather generic. The doubters have also pointed to rumours that he is only willing to take Russian citizenship if paid €5 million (£4.3m) – which the player has denied – and to the fact that he speaks barely any Russian after three years in the country. Gueye speaks reasonable Russian (the first language of many Ukrainians) and has been living in Ukraine for long enough to qualify for immediate citizenship, though until recently “really wanted” to play for Senegal.

The pull of their homelands is only natural, but the impact of Russia and Ukraine being their second choices cannot be ignored. West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie, who was born in the Soviet Union and “thinks in Russian”, said about Welliton: “Naturalisation with only one aim – to get better results – is in principle the wrong approach. It’s important that the player loves the country he’s preparing to play for. Welliton needs to be questioned: ‘Is Russia in your heart?’ He needs to speak good Russian.”

Whatever ultimately happens with Gueye and Welliton, such situations are becoming more commonplace in Europe – high levels of migration and international scouting networks mean that fewer and fewer footballers have allegiance to one country. Football authorities and fans alike need to consider their perceptions of what it means to play for their country’s national team – in particular whether football alone is a strong enough tie for a player to wear the country’s shirt.

From WSC 285 November 2010