Square pass(ports): football and citizenship in the 2018 World Cup

By Lorenzo Piccoli (EUI and University of Neuchatel) and Jelena Dzankic (EUI, GLOBALCIT)

Unlike his younger brother Granit, who plays for the Swiss national team, in 2014 the Basel-born Taulant Xhaka opted to play for Albania, the country in which his parents were born. The two brothers did not play against each other at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, but Granit Xhaka and the Swiss team crossed paths with several players who had previously been on the country’s youth squad. Aleksandar Prijovic and Milos Veljkovic, both born and raised in Switzerland, chose to play for the Serbian national team, losing in one of the early matches to their former national team. Yet, the Swiss failed to qualify for the quarterfinals: otherwise, Xhaka and teammates would have faced Ivan Rakitic with whom they had played in the Switzerland under-17, under-19 and under-21 national teams. In 2007, the young Barcelona star accepted the call-up by Croatia to join their national squad.

So, where’s the catch? Many sportspeople have been born in states under whose flags they compete, but they may as well have had migrant parents or ancestors. In terms of nationality laws, this could potentially give them access to dual or multiple nationality. That is, a chance to join two or more national teams. However, the eligibility rules of the International Football Federation (FIFA) prompt players to decide on whom they want to represent early on in their careers, already upon reaching 21 years of age. And that choice is a final one: if a player has represented one country even in a single official professional match he or she will not be able to represent another country ever again (Article 15, FIFA Statute).

Players with dual citizenship may base their choice on greater chances of playing at the international level; or simply on the feeling a stronger emotional attachment to one country over another. The former is arguably the case of Diego Costa, who in 2014 decided to play for Spain, a country where he had just recently obtained citizenship, instead of his native Brazil. Costa had erroneously hoped that by playing on the Spanish team (winners of the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship) he would spend more time in the field and win more awards. Unlike Costa, other players chose emotional bonds over fame in deciding which team to represent. Kalidou Koulibaly, for instance, played for the French national youth teams before joining Senegal in 2015. Koulibaly’s wife prompted this decision because she convinced him that playing for the African nation would make his “parents proud”.

These choices shape the history and geography of world football. Imagine what past world championships would have looked like if Patrick Viera had chosen to play for Senegal instead of France, John Barnes for Jamaica instead of England, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski for Poland instead of Germany. Even today’s world cup would look very different if Lionel Messi had chosen Spain over Argentina; Kylian Mbappé Cameroon or Algeria over France; Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling Nigeria and Jamaica over England.

Luring footballers with dual citizenship from other countries has been a long-standing practice. In the early 1960s, Australia’s FIFA membership was suspended for poaching European players, such as Leo Baumgartner and Lolly Vella. Four years ago, the former coach of the American team Jurgen Klinsmann launched a search for talented players of American origin. While this strategy came under heavy criticism, many people recognised that the basics of this project made sense. Countries with a colonial past naturally benefitted from the inflows of talented players whose families came from abroad. France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team is often cited as an example of multiculturalism in football, with the likes of Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly born in Senegal and Ghana respectively, and Zinedine Zidane whose parents emigrated from Algeria to France.

With anti-migrant sentiments on the rise in Europe and beyond, few people are aware of the fact that one in six players at this year’s World Cup in Russia has a migrant background, i.e., has been born abroad or has at least one parent of foreign descent. According to the data collected by The Washington Post, 82 out of the 739 players in this year’s World Cup have been born abroad; 22 out of the 32 teams have at least one foreign born player, and Morocco has 17 of them.

Most of the players who met in the field during the France-Belgium semi-final have African origins or descent. In the French team, these include Paul Pogba (parents from Guinea), Ousmane Dembele (Senegalese-Mauritanian mother, father from Mali), Kylian Mbappe (Cameroonian father, mother of Algerian descent) and Blaise Matuidi (Angolan father, Congolese mother). Steve Mandanda was born in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Samuel Umtiti in Cameroon. Alphonse Areola, holds dual citizenship of France and the Philippines and was offered to play for the latter but opted for France instead. In the Belgian team, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuaiyi, Vincent Kompany, Dedryck Boyata and Youri Tielemans all have at least one Congolese parent. Moussa Dembele’s father came from Mali. Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini have Moroccan heritage, while Yannick Carrasco’s parents are Portuguese and Spanish. Adnan Januzaj had the option to join seven different national squads, including Kosovo, Serbia or possibly Croatia (through his mother’s ancestry), Albania (his parents’ birthplace), Turkey (the homeland of his father’s parents) or England (where he had played since his teens). Eventually he chose Belgium, a country in which he currently lives. While Januzaj is clearly an extreme example, more than 200 players at the 2018 World Cup have double or multiple citizenship (or at least a claim to it) and could have chosen to play for a team different than the one they represent today.

Own elaboration; original data from https://www.transfermarkt.com/


We can observe two rather opposite trends when it comes to how countries and their football associations approach issues related to dual nationality. In states that are on the lookout for players with high potential, naturalisation conditions can be facilitated or completely waived. Russia’s only non-native player in this year’s World Cup, Mario Fernandes, originates from Brazil but has received Russian citizenship by presidential decree in 2016. By contrast, Alex Mierscher, the secretary-general of the Swiss Football Association recently implied that the association may no longer be so supportive of building up young players who hold dual nationality, because they could choose a foreign team over the Swiss one.  These opposite trends reveal how tightly coupled citizenship, identity and football are.

Citizenship has long been considered a mechanism for sorting individuals into sovereign states. Teams in the World Cup are based around the very idea of national citizenship, which is used to allocate players to their respective “home” countries. Increasing migration flows and evolving citizenship rules have enabled individuals to be at “home” in more than one state. And just as when a footballer sends the ball to an open teammate in a square pass, they may as well opt for allegiance to a passport that opens the doors to new professional or life opportunities.


References and further readings:

China Global Television Network, Which are the most diverse World Cup 2018 teams?

Financial Times, Senegal’s Lions benefit from their French connection

The Guardian, Mohamed Salah ‘honoured’ with gift of citizenship from Chechen leader

The Guardian, US Soccer needs to be honest about dual nationals in the Bruce Arena era

National Geographic, See Which World Cup Teams Have the Most Foreign-Born Players

Swissinfo, Swiss FA considers forcing young footballers to drop a second nationality

The Washington Post, How foreign-born players put the ‘world’ in World Cup