Naturalization in soccer has become a common phenomenon for many soccer clubs and national teams around the world. The ongoing debate among soccer clubs, soccer commentators, fans and the FIFA is whether naturalization of international footballers has gone too far. The debate on naturalization of soccer players is most prominent in countries struggling with integrating its own locally-trained players but supplying lots of immigrants to other nations.
Questions abound, especially among citizens of a given country, as to whether foreign-born players deserve to wear the national jersey and play on the national team. Critics criticize the rise of “passport battering” (a practice of giving talented foreign players passports and citizenship so that they can be eligible to play for the national teams of those countries) and “flags of convenience,” (a practice of taking the citizenship of another foreign state, different from the country of origin, and flying the other state’s flag in competition) while proponents maintain that nationalization in soccer is long overdue. The thesis of this paper argues against the assimilation of foreign athletes into sporting teams due to globalization and the impact that it brings to the local culture. The paper argues that it is necessary for FIFA to take steps to control foreign inclusion into local teams as it takes away the purpose of international soccer which is to bring nations together but not take away their identity.
The practice of soccer clubs and national teams fielding foreign players in the squads is by no means a recent trend. In fact, the practice goes a long way back into the past when pre-war Germany included the top Australian players after Anschlusss as well as forcing the Pole Ernst Wlilimowski into the team during the occupation of Poland (Grant 54). Similarly, in preparation for the 1934 World Cup, Italy is known to have naturalized a number of fine South American players of Italian stock referred to as “oriundi.” Therefore, Orsi, Demaria, Guaita, and Monti featured in the Italian squad that emerged victorious in the final against Czechoslovakia were not native Italians.
During the 1950s, political unrest significantly contributed to the naturalization of soccer players. Following the 1965 bloody Soviet involvement in Hungary, Ferenc Puskas was naturalized to a Spaniard to make the Spanish soccer team (Gyozo 470). Additionally, the Hungarian Ladislav Kubala got a Spanish passport as was the case of Alfredo Di Stefano, an Argentinean national of Italian descent.
However, FIFA out-ruled transfers between national teams in the sixties, only allowing immigrants and their descendants to be included in their new country’s national soccer team. The world soccer governing body demands existence of some sort of connection between the country and the player to grant naturalization for soccer purposes (Jeremi 616). In this regard, the process of including foreign-born players in soccer teams is relatively smooth for countries with colonial history. The French team, for instance, has been so successful because of the inclusion of African players from former colonies such as Zidane (Algeria), Desailly (Ghana), and Viera (Senegal), as well as from the Americas: Thiery Henry and Thuram (Guadalupe). Similarly, Brazilian-born Deco is a naturalized Portuguese citizen and was a key player in the national team.
As it is now, FIFA’s statute, Article 17: “Acquisition of new nationality” considers a player eligible to be included in the new representative team upon fulfilling the following conditions:
The issue of naturalization in soccer is surrounded by controversy and thus attracts significant academic attention. According to Wilson (1994), soccer attracts much political attention because of the increasing number of foreign-born players being afforded visas allowing them to play for domestic clubs, which to some amounts to violation of the established immigration policies.
Hustling (2004) observes that, from the perspective of a naturalized player’s host country, it is advantageous to recruit a highly talented player so as to select them in the national squad, but recruitment of foreign-born players often threatens to phase out or weaken any domestic local training efforts of young local players. In general, a host club often favors the idea of a migrant player taking on the citizenship of the host country because it avoids the regarding of the player as foreign in instances where a rule limits the number of alien players on the pitch (Jeremi 627).
As the practice of naturalization of soccer players is unchecked, it is evident that having so many foreign players on national teams greatly defeats the purpose of international soccer. Naturalization in soccer has gone a long way to compromise the integrity of international football and water down the meaning of national pride (Solberg & Kjetil 82). A case in point is the state of Qatar, a traditionally non-football country that has swung into the soccer headlines in recent times. To ensure that it qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Qatar took advantage of the naturalization practice to build a team chiefly composed of naturalized players.
In the same year, FIFA relaxed its stringent rules to allow players to switch their allegiance up to the age 21, regardless of the country they had played for before (Ramón et al 551). The growing number of naturalized players – especially Brazilians – on different national teams has made the FIFA boss Sepp Blatter decry the practice: “If we don’t take care about the invaders from Brazil, future World Cups might see as many as 16 finalists full of Brazilian players. It is a danger, a real, real danger” (Hunter 59).
The inclusion of too many foreign players on a national team, however successful the team may turn out, only threatens the domestic talents. This is especially the case when nations go for the best foreign talent when undertaking naturalization for soccer purposes, native players have fewer chances of playing regularly (Solberg & Kjetil 87). While the concept of naturalization in soccer is now generally accepted, focus shifts to the number of such player that any national team ought to have. The concern stems from the consciousness of a foreign-born players patriotism and allegiance when included on the national team of the host country (Grant 55). It is more likely than not that such a player will experience conflict of interest when one’s new team faces off with that of the country of their origin (Amir 54).
Therefore, in general there is a need for the world governing body for international football to consider placing a restriction or quota on the maximum number of naturalized citizens that national teams can have. This will go a long way in preserving the integrity of competitive international soccer by giving native players a chance to make national teams (Jeremi, 669). While it is evident that the initial stringent country-of-birth requirement for the national team eligibility has been overtaken by events, restrictions should introduced pertaining to naturalization in soccer to limit the number of foreigners in any national soccer team.
This paper has tackled the issue of naturalization in soccer, and observed that it is a growing trend in most soccer clubs and national teams. The research also discovered that naturalization in soccer is not a recent phenomenon as it has been around since the pre-war period. The general finding is that the practice remains controversial as teams seek glory. On the other hand, national pride and the essence of international competitions are compromised. A personal take on the issue is that there is a need for regulation on the limit of naturalized soccer players, particularly on national teams. This matter must be addressed because it is crucial to restore national pride and growth of the native talent is increasingly threatened by the influx of top-flight soccer professionals from abroad.