In a world where technology is rapidly shrinking distance between places and globalization has mixed populations and peoples, many international soccer players find themselves caught between different cultures and nationalities.
FIFA’s official rules allow players to represent countries if they have a nationality in that country, meaning that they were born there, have a biological parent or grandparent who was born there or have lived there at least two years continuously.
Even if a player has participated in a friendly match (a non-tournament match) for one country, they are still eligible to switch allegiances if they or their parents or grandparents were born in the country to which they wish to switch, or if they have lived there for at least five years continuously since turning 18.
This all seems a bit complicated, but it does make for interesting turns of events.
Mario Fernandes was declared eligible to play for Russia despite being Brazilian and having almost no connection to his national team except for his residency in Russia. He would go on to score an important goal for Russia in the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup.
This is only one of many bizarre situations — the Boateng brothers Kevin-Prince and Jérôme play for different countries, and Diego Costa was born in Brazil but plays for Spain, to the ire of most Brazilian fans.
In the past, these confusing spirals of nationalities have been confined to football, but recently this controversy has spilled outside the bounds of the sporting world.
Earlier this year, Turkish-German footballers Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan met with Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan and posed for a photo before the World Cup, causing a major scandal in Germany. Both players were part of a German national team that critically underperformed at the tournament, and Mesut Özil, who has experienced prejudice for his religion and ethnicity, was a particular target of both the DFB (German Football Association) and other German football officials.
Özil, angered by the scrutiny and criticism, announced his retirement from the German National Team. This was a nearly unprecedented move — a world-class attacking midfielder in the prime of his career quitting one of the most prestigious national teams on the planet.
To be sure, Erdogan is a controversial figure. His rule in Turkey has drawn its own share of criticism, but is it right for the public to question the private beliefs and actions of professional sports players? What responsibility do those players have to those who follow them?
The French national side, which won last summer’s World Cup, is another famous example of on-field diversity. While only two players were born abroad, many more have parents who were immigrants from former European colonies across Africa and South America.
Mass migrations from poorer former colonies to wealthier former colonizers is stripping those countries of potentially great footballers. Many nationals from these formerly colonized countries follow old colonial networks to footballing powers, where they or their children play for those national teams.
How much better would Cameroon be if Samuel Umtiti played there instead of for his adopted France? How good would Guinea’s national team be if the parents of superstar Paul Pogba had never left their native nation, or if Pogba had decided to play for Guinea, for which he was eligible?
Players get to make their own choices regarding their international representation, but how much of that choice is due to the inequitable centralization of resources in wealthier countries? Is football a truly global sport if the best players are simply snapped up by countries who have the money to spend?
It should be remembered that though players do have that choice, there is a lot of thought that goes into these decisions.
Declan Rice is a promising 19-year-old midfielder who plies his trade at West Ham United in the Premier League. His grandparents are Irish, and he has represented the Boys in Green in several friendlies but was born in London and can therefore switch to the English National Team, and the Three Lions have come calling.
He will likely get more minutes on a lower-tier Irish side, despite England manager Gareth Southgate’s preference for youth. At the same time, the possibilities are greater with an English team, which reached the semifinals at the last World Cup.
A more crucial factor, though, may be what Rice feels. He was born in London and has played for English teams. Does he feel English or Irish? Who does he want to be?
Despite the potentially personal nature of this decision, which has yet to be made, Rice has received outright criticism from football commentators and continues to be the subject of attention from both international squads.
How much say should outsiders have in these personal decisions that players make? There have been success stories for all paths walked, whether players represent their native or adopted countries.
What responsibilities do we, as the public and the media, have toward respecting these players and their choices? Many are asked to play their very best and are then roundly criticized for their cultural, national or religious choices.
In an increasingly diverse and multicultural world that is simultaneously trending toward more exclusivity and closed-mindedness, football players are subject to more and more publicity and attention.
What duties do players have as public figures representing clubs, cities and countries in front of billions of fans? We, as fans, should bear in mind that we are an actor in the worlds of soccer, and these worlds are increasingly tied to other issues of global significance.