By Paul Gardner
Seven years ago the tiny state of Qatar (population: 1.7 million, about that of Philadelphia) jumped into the soccer headlines. A country that small -- especially one with no soccer tradition -- really doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of developing a competitive national team. Not to worry -- the Qataris came up with a plan to help ensure that its national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup.
Some found the plan daring and innovative, to others it was outrageous and disgraceful. The Qataris would find good foreign players and simply naturalize them overnight into Qatari citizens. It was announced that three Brazilian players, ignored by their own country, were about to become Qatari citizens. The implication was that more would follow.
Those who were shocked at the move had simply not been paying attention. Qatar already had a national team full of naturalized players. Its coach was Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who let it be known that naturalizing foreigners was probably the only way that Qatar was ever going to qualify for the World Cup finals.
He was wrong about that -- Qatar has since found another way to qualify -- but the argument about players switching their nationality rages on. FIFA used to have pretty stringent rules about this: if you’d ever played for one country, at any age level, that was it -- you couldn’t switch allegiance. The regulation was simply too harsh to be implemented without obvious unfairness, so in 2006 it was relaxed, allowing players to switch countries up to the age of 21, regardless of which country they may have played for before that.
Qatar saw a loophole and jumped in. FIFA, aghast at what it saw as abuse of its own ruling, nixed the Qatari plan. There would be no “overnight” citizenship for soccer players -- a residency of at least two years would be required for soccer eligibility. Qatar, of course, did not qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
But the problem did not go away. After that World Cup, Sepp Blatter -- having noticed a sprinkling of naturalized Brazilians on various national teams (Alessandro Santos with Japan, Antonio Naelsen with Mexico, Clayton with Tunisia, Deco with Portugal, Marcos Senna with Spain) -- professed to be alarmed at what he saw as an “invasion” of Brazilians -- “If we don't take care about the invaders from Brazil,” he warned, future World Cups might see as many as 16 finalists “full of Brazilian players. It is a danger, a real, real danger.”
Blatter’s exaggerations aside -- there were, after all, those who felt that the advent of more Brazilian-style soccer would improve the World Cup -- controversy still swirls around the issue of a player’s nationality, or allegiance, even of his patriotism. But the question raised these days is rather different: people are asking whether it’s that big a deal ... does it really matter?
The idea of a naturalized player is now generally accepted -- the problem has moved on, it is now a matter of the number of such players any team should carry. The most convincing evidence comes from club soccer that -- so international has it become -- has almost rendered the matter of nationality academic.
The situation in England offers the most dramatic evidence. This season’s champion, Manchester United, has as two of its top players, captain Nemanja Vidic, a Serb, and goalscorer Chicharito Hernandez, who is Mexican; other regular starters include French, Korean, Brazilian, Bulgarian and Dutch players. When neighbors Manchester City won this year’s FA Cup, the winning goal was scored by Yaya Toure, from Ivory Coast, and the captain who lifted up the trophy was the Argentine Carlos Tevez.
Arsenal’s French coach Arsene Wenger has repeatedly fielded teams without a single English player. There has been no uprising by the Arsenal faithful. Well, not yet, that is. Arsenal has not been winning, and a losing record might engender a scapegoat-ish version of xenophobia.
While club fans are clearly prepared to accept foreign players (winning ones, that is), national teams still pose something of a problem. The repeated calls -- in England and other European countries -- for a limit to be placed on foreign players have, at their base, the fear that too many foreign players in the domestic league must, inevitably, lead to a weakening of the country’s national team, if only because native players will then have fewer chances to play regularly.
One can point to England’s poor international record for support of that idea, but the reasoning is highly unconvincing because England’s record has never been good, including the distant days when foreigners were virtually non-existent in English soccer.
Conversely Italy, which started importing players back in the 1930s, has an international record that includes four World Cup titles. Spain -- the current world champion -- has a league in which nearly one in five of the players are foreigners.
Built into the national eligibility debate is another thorny problem -- that of dual citizenship, that allows players to choose which country they want to play for. This is one to keep your eye on because the USA, as a heavily immigrant country, produces many young players with dual citizenship (in soccer terms, a choice between their country of birth, the USA, or that of their parents) and would therefore seem particularly vulnerable to losing players who have grown up in this country -- a case in point is Giuseppe Rossi, born and raised in New Jersey, but who chose to represent Italy.
Qatar will shortly, no doubt, re-enter the argument as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. With qualification assured, the aim of the Qataris now becomes that of putting together a team that will uphold the country’s honor during the tournament proper. In addition to its fabulous wealth, the country also has 11 years to fashion the team.
That’s not enough time to suddenly produce a string of star Qatari players. But it’s plenty of time within which to begin naturalizing foreign players. More than enough time to make a mockery of FIFA’s two-year residency requirement, and probably enough to get around any new regulations that FIFA may come up with.
FIFA’s obvious move would be to place a limit -- a quota -- on the number of naturalized citizens any national team can have. But that would pose a difficulty. It is an accepted fact that a competitive host team greatly buoys the excitement of a World Cup. So why would FIFA pass a regulation, clearly aimed at Qatar -- the country that FIFA itself voted in as host -- that would severely hamper Qatar’s ability to organize a successful World Cup?
It seems unlikely that many of the players on the Qatar team that will take the field in 2022 will list their birthplace as Qatar. Like it or not, the strict country-of-birth requirement that used to rule national-team eligibility is already a thing of the past. Is Blatter’s personal nightmare of the Brazilians At The Gates moving ever nearer?