Should developing nations get a second chance at top talent?

Football is meant to be one of the things that is an equaliser in the world. But if we’re honest, it rarely works out like that.


Burundi (red) take on Senegal during qualifying for the African Cup of Nations Source: Anadolu

The club system is geared to reward the big clubs; the international system is geared to reward the big nations. The occasional Leicester City or Portugal gives the rest of us hope, but most of the time, the big boys clean up everything.

And everyone who is eligible for those nations wants to pay for them, obviously.

Eligibility is one of those murky issues that one does not wade into lightly. Past rorting means scepticism is justified when a proposal comes forth to widen the international player pool.

Still, that experience should not dent the opportunity to look deeper into how we can boost some the developing world and its access to elite talent.

Let’s take the case of Saido Berahino. He’s 23, a star in the English Premier League who wants to make an impression on the international stage.

He’s holding out to represent England, the nation he arrived in aged 10. With youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard occupying similar roles in attack, there’s no guarantees.

The other option is his homeland, Burundi. A nation ranked 141 in the world, having never qualified for an African Cup of Nations, let alone a World Cup. Berahino even admits to still feeling Burundian, but that the glamour of England is too much to ignore.

Even if he plays one competitive second for the Three Lions, he is tied to them forever – ruling out the possibility of giving something meaningful to Burundi, a country in desperate need of football help.

Leroy Fer, a fine Dutch midfielder who could have represented Curaçao, gave a fantastic insight into this dilemma back in 2009.

“Personally, I want to mean something for my island. That's why I'm still in doubt. But my brain says it's better to choose for the Netherlands. Then you're assured of a big tournament every two years.” he said. “But my heart is thinking of Curaçao. It would be fantastic to play a World Cup with [them], it would give the islands an enormous boost.”

Soon, it will be the same dilemma with other young stars, like Chelsea defender Nathaniel Chalobah (Sierra Leone), Liverpool’s Joe Gomez (Gambia), Leicester’s Demarai Gray (Jamaica), Benfica’s Hany Mukhtar (Sudan), Molde’s Etzaz Hussein (Pakistan), Club Brugge’s Dion Cools (Malaysia), Juventus’s Emil Audero (Indonesia) and Lyon’s Aldo Kalulu (Rwanda). The likelihood is that all will be swayed to chase the Euro-dream, no matter how unlikely it is.

For years, major countries have sucked in immigrants from poorer countries, leaving them with little to show for it. But maybe football is a place where the balance can be redressed.

I believe any player (even if capped at senior level) should be able to change his nationality if the nation in question is classified as a developing nation. Looking at the FIFA rankings, the place to draw the line would be about 75.

There would have to be some strong caveats, of course. My key four suggestions would be as follows.

1) The player was already eligible for that nation (through birth, parents, grandparents or residency) before playing his first international game for the other nation.

2) The national association of his existing nation permits the change.

3) He has not played in a senior, competitive international for 24 consecutive months.

4) The nation the player wants to represent has been ranked outside the top 75 for 12 consecutive months.

This way, the system would be almost impossible to abuse – because the original nation (or the Court of Arbitration for sport) would have to permit the change – whilst also offering opportunities to legitimate cases.

Curiously enough, both Curaçao or Jamaica (two teams mentioned in this story) have just both inched inside the top 75 this past few months. It’s not a walk-up for every nation to exploit – even if the former were ranked 183rd as recently as 2014.

Some examples of players that could make the switch? Napoli’s Jonathan de Guzmán could switch from the Netherlands to Canada or Phillippines. Marseille defender Rolando could represent his native Cape Verde. Ex-Valencia star Hedwiges Maduro could play for Aruba.

In time, there could be some wonderful, unusual possibilities: Yohan Cabaye might represent Vietnam, Geoffrey Kondogbia could play for Central African Republic, while Dutch pair Nigel de Jong and Jaïro Riedewald could change to Indonesia. Denmark’s Pione Sisto could look at South Sudan or Uganda; even Hull City’s Shaun Maloney would be an option for Malaysia.

The list of countries that could benefit – many of them strife-torn or third-world nations with little possibility to develop elite footballers of their own – goes on and on.

In Australia alone, there are dozens of cases where players who could go on to make great contributions to developing nations elsewhere.

We’ve already seen Matthew Davies (Malaysia), Brendan Gan (Malaysia) and Iain Ramsay (Philippines) become staples of their new nations – but this rule would allow the likes of Tarek Elrich (Lebanon), Nikolai Topor-Stanley (Mauritius), Connor Pain (Hong Kong) and Bruce Djite (Togo) to add a meaningful chapters to their international career.

And if Mustafa Amini (capped last month but of Afghan heritage), Awer Mabil (South Sudan), Osama Malik (Sudan), Andrew Nabbout (Malta), Rashad Mahazi and Bruce Kamau (both Kenya) don’t forge earth-shattering careers with the Socceroos, none of us would begrudge them going and helping nations that could desperately use some football assistance.

Indeed, nobody wants to see an abuse of nationality regulations – but if there’s an opportunity to help, do we really have anything to lose?

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6 min read
Published 14 April 2017 at 11:22am
By Sebastian Hassett