Trans-national Teams: ethnic diversity in national football teams
Earlier this summer, the World Cup in Brazil occupied the hearts and minds of millions across the globe. The tournament hosted the 32 best national teams in the world, and saw the German Mannschaft come out as the winner.
However, the number of countries represented in this tournament by and large exceeded the number of national teams. According to Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, over one third of the football players hold more than one passport and could, therefore, have chosen a different national team to play for. In total, over seventy nationalities were represented in the World Cup.
This trend of multinational football players choosing which country they wish to represent drew the attention of many other media outlets as well. Both online and offline, journalists focused on that which one of the articles in de Volkskrant called the ‘diluted identity’ of national football teams.
Exhibit A: Boateng vs. Boateng
Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the Ghanaian-German half-brothers Kevin-Prince and Jérôme Boateng. On the 21st of June, the brothers, both born from a Ghanaian father, were each other’s direct opponents in the Germany-Ghana match (which ended in a 2-2 tie). Four years ago, during the World Cup in South Africa, the brothers crossed swords as well: back then, Jérôme’s German beat his brother’s Ghana.
Exhibits B and C: Emotion versus strategy?
There have been a few instances in recent football history in which a player was invited to play for a national team by its coach, before he even held a passport of the team’s country. The best known examples, those of Lionel Messi and Diego Costa, both relate to the Spanish national team. Wonderkid Messi was discovered and contracted by FC Barcelona’s scouts at the tender age of just twelve. Growing up in the Catalan capital, his talent grew with him – resulting in an offer to play for the Spanish U-20 team. Messi politely declined, later stating in an interview: “I have spent almost as many years living in Barcelona as in Argentina and that leaves you with divided loyalties, but it doesn’t change your true colors.”
Diego Costa, born in Brazil, was offered a similar choice. The striker decided to choose Spain over his native country, causing the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) to demand that he loses his Brazilian citizenship. The CBF accused Costa of making the decision based on financial motives. The 25-year-old first came to Spain in 2009, when he played for current La Liga champion Atlético Madrid. As the first rumors of Costa’s Spanish citizenship surfaced, supporters of Atlético’s arch rivals voiced their reluctance to embrace the Brazilian-born as their national team’s striker, chanting ‘Diego Costa is not Spanish’ during a game in September 2013. Despite their reluctance, and the disbelief of many Brazilians, during the World Cup in his native country, Costa donned not the shirt of the Seleção but that of La Roja.
The fans’ perspective
Of course, these stories make for great headlines. But as the world’s best football teams raise feelings of nationalism across their home countries, one question remains: do the fans care? How do they feel about their national teams becoming more and more international?
“I couldn’t care less,” says Christiaan, a Dutch football fan. “The fact that a player such as Jonathan de Guzman, born in Canada from Thai-Filipino parents, now plays for The Netherlands is a consequence of globalization. Furthermore, football players have to choose the country they represent at an early stage, so their career is not affected that much.” In The Netherlands, top sportsmen and –women, along with scientists and (future) members of the Royal Family, can apply for an accelerated naturalisation process. In recent years, two such requests (by Salomon Kalou and Douglas Teixeira) were denied. Douglas, born in Brazil, later obtained his Dutch passport through the regular process.
German supporter of Die Mannschaft Sadi, who has an immigration background himself, is slightly more nuanced regarding the issue. “I don’t care much about nationalities. I see no problem if a guy from a Turkish family, born in Germany, decides at age 21 for which team he wants to play. That is immigration and makes perfect sense. What bugs me is when teams like Qatar or others literally ‘buy’ African or Brazilian players, just to be more successful in international competitions. That stinks.”
Spain and Real Madrid fan Fernando also refers to the events in Qatar, and argues that in order to prevent such practices, rules should be tighter: “If everybody can play everywhere, why do we need rules? Then, ‘petrodollars’ can pay for players and make Qatar the strongest team in the world.” If Costa had had a Spanish (grand)parent, according to FIFA rules, he did not have to wait five years to represent Spain instead of Brazil. But Fernando argues that such roots are not enough to be able to represent a nation: “A Congolese player, born in Spain and raised with the Spanish culture, environment et cetera, should not be able to play for Congo either. He has no cultural connections with that second country.” The exception Fernando is willing to make, and here he does agree with the FIFA rules, is when a player grew up in two nations: “In the case of a player coming from abroad when he is 12, 13 years old, I think the best choice should be the option to choose between the two (or more) countries before the first game.” The Brazilian fan Luiz agrees with Fernando but goes further “Diego Costa is quite clearly Brazilian, he’s as Spanish as I am, I’d find it very difficult to cheer on Xavi or Iniesta if they suddenly played for the Selecao!”.
Football, as they say, is a game of opinions.