FIFA Nationality Rules: Gift or Curse?

The concept of nationality sits within an uncomfortable space when it comes to international football. Despite FIFA’s best efforts to clarify, re-clarify and restate, there’s always the feeling that when it comes to African football, we’re no more than a few matches away from rule infringement. Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, just a selection of those who’ve recently fallen fall of FIFA regarding nationality.

This story begins back in 2010 when FIFA issued the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes. Buried within the pages of this document is Article 18. This amended the FIFA Statues of 2004, removing the age limit at which players may switch footballing nationality. For many African FA’s this change had the effect of ‘liberating’ many of their compatriots in the diaspora who’d previously appeared for other nations in ‘non-competitive’ fixtures.

Four years on from the FIFA Statutes of 2010, the question is – has the effect of Article 18 truly benefited African football as a whole?

So far there’ve been a number of African nations who’ve outwardly benefited from Article 18. Ghana, DR Congo, Algeria, Nigeria Morocco, all nations with large diasporas in both Europe and North America. Kevin Prince-Boateng, Adam Larsen Kwarsey, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, just a few of the diaspora players to recently adopt the homeland of their parents.

One could argue this has resulted in African football as a whole receiving more attention. If we take a look at Africa’s showpiece football event, the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), a spike in average attendances is still yet to materialise with average attendance figures rooted between 18,000-21,000 per match. In fact, it’s fairly hard to draw any solid conclusions when considering that since 2010 there have only been two AFCON’s.

In order to truly measure the impact of this new influx of players, we may need to take a step back for 4-6 years and look again. However, the FIFA Statutes of 2010 have opened up a new dimension to African football. The introduction of a new type of player, raised and accustomed to a different footballing culture, benefitting from experience abroad and possibly drawing fresh attention to AFCON which has often been relegated to nothing more than mid-season inconvenience for football fans in Europe.

Most importantly, and perhaps unintentionally on the part of FIFA, the rule shift has created a pseudo ‘international football transfer system’. Effectively forcing African FA’s to ‘sell’ the idea of playing for the national team to diaspora players who may have other options, which seem more convenient (and not forgetting more lucrative). This has resulted in a more strategic approach to player recruitment and development when it comes to Africa. Ethiopia, who only missed out on World Cup 2014 after being overcome by Nigeria could have expected a windfall of players from their diaspora if they had qualified for the showpiece event. In fact, the rule changes have allowed African FA’s to use the World Cup as a cyclical carrot to dangle in front of players from the diaspora.

For all the talk of an expanding player pool, media attention and prospective rise in attendances, there several factors which may have been overlooked by FIFA. In the rush to ‘liberate’ members of the African diaspora from international footballing purgatory, it seems the true consequence of FIFA’s rule change may have been totally unforeseen.

One of the main question marks when discussing the benefits to African football of the change in nationality rules concerns cohesion. In order to gain an understanding it’s important to look at the case of Salomon Kalou prior to the 2006 World Cup. During 2005 Kalou rejected several call-up’s to the Ivory Coast national team. On more than one occasion, he made clear his intent to take up Dutch citizenship and represent the Netherlands at the 2006 World Cup. As we know, things didn’t exactly work out (even after the intervention of Marco Van Basten) and Kalou went on to represent the Ivory Coast.

No one has since questioned Kalou’s loyalty to Ivory Coast, his application maybe, but on the whole Ivory Coast fans have embraced and continue to embrace him.

Since the change in nationality rules a new dynamic emerged. It’s one concerning the player from the diaspora of, shall we say ‘Nation X’. Initially, Nation X is of no interest to him in terms of international football. He’s holds hopes of one day donning the colours of his country of birth or adoption in Europe. As time goes on he finds opportunities at international level limited, a year prior to the next World Cup it dawns upon him that his best chance of ever playing in the tournament lays with Nation X, the land of his parent’s birth. With a tournament on the horizon we hear the first rumblings of interest. After much back and forth, he soon expresses an openness to play for Nation X. Surely enough the necessary nationality switch documentation is submitted to FIFA by Nation X’s Football Association.

Some might say there’s nothing wrong this, I mean why should talent go to waste? However, in this mad rush to secure the services of players from the diaspora has/will this come at the cost of team cohesion? Take the case of Kevin Prince-Boateng and his ‘retirement’ from international football post-World Cup 2010. After a summer professing his love for Ghana, the prospect of a hot nights in Brazzaville during AFCON 2012 qualifiers didn’t sound too attractive.

Boateng’s sudden ‘un-retirement’ when Ghana were on the verge of securing safe passage to Brazil 2014 raised eyebrows, but on the whole, he’s been cautiously welcomed back to the fold. Despite the fact he played no part in the qualifying process, he’s been welcomed back. Sure he’s a great talent, but the question arises – how far are African FA’s willing to go in order to accommodate talent from the diaspora who have no real ‘commitment’ to the national cause?

It’s an uncomfortable yet important question, one which become increasingly relevant as time goes on. Algeria rocked up to the last World Cup with 17 foreign-born players, some of whom had never stepped foot in Algeria. Equatorial Guinea are almost laughable in their approach to nationality, packing their team with foreign born players of which there have been consequences when FIFA rules have been ignored.

In one way, perhaps this discussion comes too early for us to draw any concrete conclusions. I liken it to a train rumbling down the tracks towards the platform, sooner or later it will arrive and we better be prepared. The FIFA Statutes of 2010 opened African football to a pool of talent of which it simply had no access to previously. However, the future will be a delicate balancing act – recruiting from the diaspora, ensuring team cohesion whilst maintaining the integrity of the national team set-up.

Challenges lay ahead…

This article was written by Gosbert Chagula. You can follow him on Twitter.

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