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It Seems To Me . . .

FIFA needs to tighten nationality loopholes.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, October 20, 1999) -- In the past two World Cups, the United States has benefited significantly from the participation of "newly-found" Americans such as Thomas Dooley, David Regis and Ernie Stewart. They were all born and raised abroad, but were eligible for U.S. citizenship because in the case of Dooley and Stewart their fathers were American, or in Regis case, because he married an American, and they could play for the U.S. in international soccer because they had not played for another national team.

I have no problem with this. All three have been terrific additions to the U.S. side and the United States Soccer Federation owes them a substantial debt. But now a citizenship saga is starting to play itself out in England, that underlines the fact that world governing body FIFA should take another long hard look at what constitutes nationality and eligibility to play on a national team.

On September 8, David Johnson, a gifted young striker for Ipswich in England's First Division, came on in the second half for Jamaica and scored what proved to be the goal which allowed the home team to tie the U.S. 2-2 in a hard-fought match. This is the same David Johnson who previously had played for England's under-18 squad, was named to play for Northern Ireland in a key international qualifier, played an important match for the England B squad and was ready to start in a qualifier for Wales for next year's European Championships.

Now, following a meeting in Glasgow with Scotland boss Craig Brown, Johnson says he is smitten with Scottish enthusiasm for their lads, and now his international future lies with Scotland. He would be immediately eligible, although Brown says he doubts Johnson will be ready to play in the upcoming Euro 2000 elimination against England.

This is what Johnson's strange international soccer odyssey looks like. He was born in Jamaica of parents who hold a British passport, so he holds a British passport. At a young age he moved to England and grew up in Shropshire. As a very young player he was outstanding, and played in six international matches for the England U-15 squad. At the age of 15 he signed a development contract with Manchester United, and then became the youngest player called up for the England U-18 squad. He played five international matches for the England U-18s.

Johnson moved through the Man. U. youth program and turned pro with Bury in the English Third Division. He moved on to Ipswich at age 19. When he was passed over for England U-21s, he was approached by Northern Ireland to play for it. While he was still in negotiations, he was called to the Northern Ireland side, but did not report because he was angry that the call-up was premature. So he turned his back on Northern Ireland, and then Glenn Hoddle picked him for the England B squad and he played against Russia.

Johnson had hoped to be called to the full England side. But there seems little interest on Kevin Keegan's part. So Johnson announced he would play for Wales. He lives near Wales, and his wife is Welsh. That seemed final, but while in training with the Welsh side, he sustained an ankle injury and did not play. So when his birthplace, Jamaica, came calling, he played for it in three friendlies, including the September matches against Canada and the U.S. But all this has not left him ineligible to play for Scotland. Or for that matter for England, Northern Ireland or Wales either. Or Jamaica. Confused? So apparently is FIFA.

Here's the situation. FIFA says that it does not take a position on citizenship. If a country accepts an individual as a citizen, FIFA will recognize that citizenship and will allow a player to represent the national side so long as that player has not played for another national team in a FIFA-sanctioned competition. The last caveat is critical. Friendlies are not FIFA-sanctioned events. Nor are most youth competitions, except for the U-17 and U-21 world championships, the Olympics, and some other major tournaments.

This means that when just before World Cup qualifying, the El Salvador legislature passed a private bill making two Brazilian soccer players El Salvador's newest citizens. As far as FIFA was concerned the only thing they asked was whether either had made a disqualifying appearance for Brazil. The answer was no, so they were immediately allowed to take the field for their new country. It is also why an Ernie Stewart, David Regis and Thomas Dooley could become the newest U.S. citizens and the newest starters on the U.S. national team.

As far as England is concern, the British consider themselves one country whether you are in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. But FIFA effectively considers each a separate country for soccer purposes. So if you carry a British passport, as far as England is concerned, you are just as much Welsh or Scottish as English. So Johnson has his choice.

Right now there is a high level of outrage in England over Johnson. That outrage will likely grow if Brown decided to put him into the Scottish side against the home lads. While the Johnson case is extreme, nationality switching is becoming more common. Many believe FIFA has to adopt new rules over nationality. FIFA says it is studying the situation.

I received e-mails from people who soccer knowledge I highly respect, calling into question a couple of assertions I made in recent coverage of the CONCACAF Champions Cup from Las Vegas and the first round Dallas Burn victory over the Chicago Fire.

In my analysis of the Burn-Fire match which I watched on TV and via videotape, I commented that substitute Fire defender Tom Soehn could not keep up with Burn forward Ariel Graziani. Graziani scored one goal and was completely responsible for the Burn's second in the 2-1 victory.

It was pointed out to me that although Francis Okaroh, whom Soehn replaced, had been marking Graziani. But when Soehn came in, he was given responsibility for Jason Kreis, and C.J. Brown began to mark Graziani. On Graziani's goal and assist, it was Brown who had lost his mark, and Soehn was forced to try to cover for him.

Absolutely correct. I went back and rewatched the tape of the second half of match. Soehn, in fact, did fine work with Kreis, while Brown had a great deal of trouble with Graziani's pace. I stand corrected.

Another correspondent took me to task for my assertion from Las Vegas that CONCACAF officials were opening taking delight in Necaxa's victory over D.C. United. He was there and saw the same thing I did. But he knows all involved, and pointed out the celebrating group were actually Mexican Soccer Federation officials who were watching the match from the CONCACAF VIP suite.

Again, I stand corrected.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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