The World Cup begins on Thursday evening in São Paulo with hosts and 5 times champions, Brazil, taking on a Croatian side with 2 members of their squad returning to the land of their birth.
Among them will be former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva now with Shakhtar Donetsk. In what promises to be a carnival atmosphere, the Rio born forward may lead the line for Croatia in place of the suspended Mario Mandzukic, and has promised his mother that he will sing both national anthems. Eduardo and international team-mate Sammir of Getafe, are 2 of 5 players at the tournament returning “home” with an adopted national side, the others being:
- Pepe (Real Madrid and Portugal)
- Thiago Motta (PSG and Italy)
- Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid and Spain)
Of that list, perhaps the most controversial name is Chelsea target Diego Costa who months after making his international debut for Brazil, switched allegiance to current World Cup champions Spain. The fact that he had now received Spanish citizenship and that he had only played for Seleção Brasileira in 2 friendly matches meant that he was within his rights and FIFA’s rules to do so. In making the change, he angered coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and sections of the Brazilian public who believed his motivation was financial.
Diego Costa explained:
“It was very difficult to choose between the country where you were born and the country that has given you everything. All that I have in my life was given to me by this country. I have a special affection. Here I feel very appreciated for all that I do and I feel the love of the people. I hope people understand because it is not something against Brazil. I have family in Brazil and it is the country where I was born. I hope that God allows me to live there again in the future.”
Another Brazilian born footballer to play for Spain was holding midfielder Marcos Senna who won the European Championships in 2008 as part of la Roja’s side. Indeed dozens of Brazilian players have represented other national teams over the years.
Historically, players were able to play for different national teams. Between 1947 and 1961, Alfredo di Stefano played for the country of his birth, Argentina; before lining up for both Colombia and Spain. His Real Madrid team-mate Ferenc Puskás also played for Spain after amassing 85 caps for Hungary earlier in his career.
After examples such as Togo and Equatorial Guinea fielding 6 and 8 “naturalised” players respectively during qualification campaigns for international tournaments; FIFA were prompted to amend their eligibility rules in an attempt to protect the legitimacy of their competitions. Since 2004, a player must have a “clear connection” to any national team they wish to represent. Where a player wishes to play for a country not of their birth, they must either have a parent or grandparent born in that territory or have spent a period of 5 years living in that nation themselves.
The home nations have their own “gentleman’s agreement” concerning eligibility between the four countries who are technically one sovereign state. There has long been discussion on whether players born or schooled outside of the UK such as Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, should be selected for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The need to select foreign coaches such as England’s Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello provokes an entirely different debate.
Whilst specific international transfer regulations exist for players under the age of 18, there has been some concern that FIFA’s eligibility rules leave a loophole open for associations to effectively take their choice of the world’s young footballing talent before selecting them for competition at the age of 21.
Nationality will always be a personal thing and is challenging for any authority to prescribe rules over. Despite birth and blood heritage, “clear connection” can be a cultural consideration.
Perhaps the acid test hinges on one question; What would that player do if they were asked to take a sudden-death penalty against the land of their birth?