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FIFA rules regarding national eligibility need modification.
By Robert Wagman
(Monday, April 30, 2001) -- How does a nation determine who is and who is not eligible for its national team? It should be fairly simple, but at times eligibility can be extremely difficult to determine, and the rules easy to bend.
What world governing body FIFA is trying to avoid at all costs is countries stealing players from other nation. It would be easy to envision countries filling national-team holes by finding a willing player, quickly naturalizing him and inserting him into the lineup. El Salvador, for instance, just before World Cup qualifying in 1997, suddenly found compelling reasons for the national legislature to grant citizenship to two Brazilians, who just happened to be soccer players, through a special bill.
Still, for varying political reasons, FIFA has deliberately kept eligibility rules rather vague. Its Article 18 reads in full:
1. Any player who is a naturalized citizen of a country in virtue of that countryís laws shall be eligible to play for a national or representative team of that country.
2. If a player has been included in a national or representative team of a country for which he is eligible to play pursuant to paragraph 1, he shall not be permitted to take part in an international match for another country. Accordingly, any player who is qualified to play for more than one national association (i.e. who has dual nationality) will be deemed to have committed himself to one association only when he plays his first international match in an official competition (at any level) for that association.
3. The only players exempt from this provision are those whose nationality has been changed not voluntarily but as the result of an international decree either granting independence to a region or ceding part of one country to another.
Obviously the key phrase in the rule is "an official competition (at any level)." What constitutes an "official competition" is not spelled out, but in usage it has come to mean a World Cup match or any qualifier leading up to a World Cup, whether at the senior level (full national side), youth level (both under-20 and under-17), or in a FIFA "sanctioned" competition, such as the Olympics, or a tournament held by one of the regional confederations. The African Nations Cup, the UEFA Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup competitions would be examples of the latter.
This seems pretty straightforward, but in practice it isnít, especially on the youth level. Friendly matches do not constitute "official competitions," but, at times, various confederations use different and changing standards for qualification of teams to regional youth championships. What might seem a friendly, might even retroactively be considered a qualifier for an "official" youth competition. Moreover, it is not even clear if a qualifier for an official youth competition is in itself an official match.
Look at the situations of two American players who have had something of the same hurdle to clear.
The Chicago Fireís Chris Armas, now the standout defensive midfielder for the U.S. men, twice took the field as a young player for the Puerto Rico national team. CONCACAF took the position, when asked by the U.S. Soccer Federation, that neither of the matches was part of an official competition as defined by FIFA. So Armas was cleared to play for the U.S., but the first time he did, a protest was lodged with FIFAís Players Status Committee which ruled that it was up to CONCACAF.
Now there is the vexing case of Chicago midfielder\defender Diego Gutierrez, originally from Colombia, but now an American citizen. He was born in Bogota, but his family moved to Miami when he was 17. A year later, Gutierrez's family moved to Kansas City, Mo. After attending Blue Springs High school in the Kansas City area, he played first at the University of Evansville and then Rockhurst University.
Gutierrez was a star youth player in Colombia, performing for the nationís under-17s and later, on at least one occasion, for the U-20s. His eligibility for the U.S. came into question because in 1989 he played for Colombia in the South American Youth Championships, which were retroactively used to qualify teams for the 1990 FIFA World Youth Championships held that year in Scotland. While Guiterrez did play in the South American competition, he did not play in Scotland.
It remains unclear if the South American tournament was an "official" event or not. Reportedly, the Colombian Soccer Federation has unofficially stated that its records do not show Guiterrez ever playing in an official competition, but it is also reported the federation says it has no records or officials rosters at all from the 1989 youth competition.
The Guiterrez situation also points out a serious flaw in the current system. It is up to the country who wants to use a player to determine his eligibility while FIFA takes the position it does not determine a playerís status. If a country uses an ineligible player, it runs the risk of forfeiting matches that player has competed in should there be a protest. So in the Guiterrez case, the U.S. has opted on the side of caution.
FIFA is under a lot of pressure from some developing soccer nations to modify the rules as they pertain to players who may have appeared in a few youth matches, or a single youth competition. A number of African nations have charged that France runs large numbers of players through its youth system, many of whom have dual citizenship or citizenship with former French colonies in Africa. Most of these players will never wear a full national-team shirt, but their one appearance at the youth level renders them ineligible to play for the country of their parents.
Likewise, several Caribbean nations have identified English players who have dual citizenship who they would like to include in their national sides but cannot because they made one or two appearances for an England youth team.
But the problems are not exclusive to developing nations. There currently is a three way tug-of-war going on for the services of Owen Hargreaves, an emerging midfield prospect with Bayern Munich. Hargreaves was born in Calgary, Canada, of English parents; therefore, he is eligible to play for either England or Canada. Also, because of the unique eligibility system of the United Kingdom, he is eligible to play for the Wales, the "country" of his motherís birth.
Hargreaves has played several unofficial youth matches for England. Canada, and to a lesser extent Wales, are desperately trying to convince him not to play any official youth matches so as to remain eligible for their teams should he not become a part of the player pool for the full England side in the 2004 European Championships or the 2006 World Cup.
Officially, FIFA is "studying" the situation. Given that the organization is determined to foster the growth of soccer in developing nations, these eligibility rules need to be changed.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..