Why this matters
FIFA's looser rules around national team eligibility have combined with the globalization of football and the growth of soccer in the United States to create a more cosmopolitan Team USA than ever before.
Earlier this month, the United States Soccer Federation unveiled the names of the 26 men who would represent the nation at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in a loud and colorful TV broadcast at a stereotypically postmodern Brooklyn concert venue, replete with ESPN cameras and a who’s-who of American soccer cognoscenti. This is what soccer looks like now: a perpetual motion machine for making events.
But if you looked past the hues of red, white, and blue, and managed to hear over the din of the DJ and the MC, you would have spotted signs of another way in which international soccer has fundamentally shifted.
It was visible in the birthplaces of some of the lucky men who made the final roster as they flashed across the screen:
Almere, the Netherlands
Milton Keynes, England
It was audible in the range of accents that you’ll hear if you spend time listening to this national team speak. Antonee Robinson’s scouse accent from his teenage years spent in Liverpool. Sergiño Dest and his heavy Dutch inflection. Yunus Musah’s faint cockney picked up during a childhood that began in New York City, before his Ghanaian parents moved him to Italy and then London. Then again, Tim Weah, the son of Liberian President and Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, never lost his American brogue after he moved to Paris when he was 14.
The facts and sounds of this national team reflect not just the diversity of the country they represent but a new era in the global game. Globalization has created a pitched recruitment battle among nations that doesn’t feel all that different from the perpetual arms race for talent in the club game. With so many multinational people across the planet, more soccer players now have eligibility to play for several national teams. As a result, the makeup of the international game has changed dramatically.
Take Musah. The 19-year-old USA midfielder, who will make his World Cup debut in Qatar, now plays for Valencia in Spain. Owing to his parents’ Ghanaian nationality, he was eligible to represent Ghana, the United States, Italy, and England. If he keeps playing in Spain for seven more years, he could have been eligible for the Spanish national team had he not already played for the U.S. In fact, Musah played 32 games for England’s youth national teams before switching sides.
“I got to a point where I had to make a decision on who I was going to represent,” Musah said. “And after that first game with the U.S., it was really clear to me that I wanted to represent the country I was born in.”
International soccer’s current rules allow a one-time switch from one national team program to another until a player has played in at least three senior team matches and turned 21. Musah lived in the U.S. only briefly after he was born but decided that he was most comfortable in Gregg Berhalter’s program. He gravitated to the young team’s closeness, its breezy vibes, and its welcoming attitude toward a new recruit.
As many players now must, Musah made a definitive choice about nation despite a multivariate identity. “I feel like I’m part of every country that I’ve lived in in different ways,” he recently told The Ringer. “I love all those countries.” But he also had to contemplate the best course for his career. While international soccer is something of a side hustle for many professional players, who play most of their games and make most of their money with their clubs, it can also provide a launchpad to the next level. A strong World Cup can accelerate a club career by as much as half a decade.
Several U.S. national-teamers who grew up in Europe, many of them the sons of American servicemen, have spoken of their choice to play for the USMNT as a way to connect with their loosely tethered roots. A U.S. national team career is a chance to get to know the country they represent – and, in some cases, a chance to learn English from scratch. Striker Ricardo Pepi was torn between playing for the U.S., where he was born, raised, and mostly developed as a player in the border town of El Paso, Texas, or for Mexico, whose national team he and his family rooted for. He ultimately picked the U.S., which offered him an opportunity to be a senior team contributor right away. (He was ultimately one of the last men cut from the World Cup team.)
“I am a Mexican-American, and I am super proud of my heritage,” Pepi said after his decision in the summer of 2021. “It’s something that will never be taken away from me, no matter what national team I play for. This country has given my family so many opportunities and it really has helped me achieve my goals.”
By one count, 137 players at the World Cup will be playing in the 2022 World Cup for a nation where they were not born. That’s 137 out of 832 total players, or about 16.5 percent. With five foreign-born players on its 26-man roster, the U.S. hardly leads the tournament in that category. Eleven nations have more players born elsewhere. The host country Qatar has 10, good for fourth-most. Morocco, meanwhile, leads this World Cup with 14 foreign-born players on its team, or slightly more than half, reflecting a diaspora that stretches from the end of the Mediterranean to Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Just four nations have no foreign-born players in their team at all.
National team eligibility has always been a moving target in FIFA’s rulebook.
When the U.S. played Italy in the first round of the 1934 World Cup, it faced two familiar faces. Luis Monti had previously played against the U.S. at the 1930 World Cup while representing Argentina. Raimundo Orsi had been on Argentina when it played the U.S. in the 1928 Olympics. Between them, they scored five of Italy’s goals in a 7-1 rout.
After the 1950 World Cup, where the U.S. famously stunned England with a 1-0 upset, FIFA opened an inquiry into the eligibility of three American players who were not yet citizens. One of them was Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian man who scored the winner against England. FIFA contended that another player, Joe Maca, should have been cleared by his home nation of Belgium to compete for the U.S. – all while misspelling his name in their statement on the matter.
The United States Football Association, not yet renamed the United States Soccer Federation, had to remind FIFA of its own use of the “English rulebook,” which said that each country was free to write its own eligibility rules. And because the USFA had ruled that signing of the “first papers” that signaled an intention to become a citizen was sufficient, and all three players had done so, the complaint was dropped. FIFA added, seemingly undercutting its own case, that a protest should have been lodged prior to the tournament but wasn’t. During the qualifying cycle for the 1954 World Cup, Gaetjens played in a game for Haiti, for which he had already played twice in 1944.
What the U.S. did was hardly out of the ordinary at the time. During a two-game series with Cuba, the Americans noticed that their opponents had produced an almost entirely new team for the second match. They were said to be Argentinians. But according to Cuba’s rules, if you spoke Spanish, you could become a citizen within 24 hours.
Alfredo Di Stefano, the leading player of that era, played six games for his native Argentina in 1947, four for Colombia in 1949 while he played for Millonarios in Bogota, and, once he had become a global superstar at Real Madrid, 31 more games for Spain from 1957 to 1961. Laszlo Kubala, a star striker for F.C. Barcelona in the 1950s, somehow managed to make appearances for five squads in international competition: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain, a Europe XI, and Catalonia.
In 2004, FIFA decided to crack down on players hopping from one national team to another. While the problem was never hugely widespread, it tended to attract a lot of attention when it did occur, and it gave international soccer a whiff of lawlessness. So the governing body decreed that, thenceforth, every player was allowed just one national team per career – unless it was two, because a carveout was created for players who had represented a different country at the youth level before they turned 21. Dissatisfied, FIFA added a clause only a few months later stating that players needed to have a clear link to the country they were representing, either through parental or grandparental lineage, or through a minimum period of residence, which began at two years and was raised to five when the barrier proved too low to be effective.
FIFA’s concern was that some national teams – most notably Qatar, already setting out on an ambitious agenda to become a relevant soccer nation – was recruiting its national teams from abroad. FIFA president Sepp Blatter fretted hysterically to the BBC in 2007 that if his organization didn’t take action against “this farce,” half the World Cup teams would consist entirely of naturalized Brazilians by 2014. That didn’t happen, but FIFA changed its eligibility rules a few more times since to make things so confusing that even the federations don’t always seem to know who is allowed to play for them.
Since FIFA started legislating eligibility, the U.S. has fielded a raft of dual nationals, a trend that accelerated during Jurgen Klinsmann’s head coaching tenure from mid-2011 to late 2016. Klinsmann, who had starred for West Germany and then Germany’s national team, had a knack for recruiting German-Americans – again, largely the sons of servicemembers – who had no realistic prospect of representing the elite Die Mannschaft. He brought no fewer than five of them to the 2014 World Cup, including Julian Green, an injured teenager who took up a spot at the expense of national soccer hero Landon Donovan.
Under Berhalter, the Americans have become more competitive in the fight over coveted talent. Musah could likely have picked any of the nations that he was eligible for. Dest spurned the opportunity to defect to the Dutch national team, where he could have competed for hardware in major tournaments. Malik Tillman, the Bayern Munich product who ultimately didn’t make this year’s World Cup team, was sought by Germany as well. Pepi easily could have been a Mexico player. Berhalter has had a few misses, however. Notably, coveted young forward Jonathan David, who was born in Brooklyn, demurred when the American federation tried to poach him away from Canada, which counts seven foreign-born players at the World Cup.
A national team manager is now a recruiter as well, like an American college coach, forever glancing at the next wave of players and jostling to draw the best of them to his program.
An international career is now more akin to any other line of work: You go where it suits you best, for whatever combination of reasons that matter to you most. This has meant that most national teams have never looked or sounded more diverse. The U.S. certainly hasn’t, to its immense credit.
But the new, more mercenary nature of the international game has also changed its calculus. Roster construction and team cultures are more capricious now; they require more managing. A team’s identity is no longer a given; it has to be nurtured intentionally. In physical appearance, national teams don’t all look the same anymore. The players’ names don’t necessarily hew so closely to the national tradition either. Japan has a goalkeeper named Daniel Schmidt on its World Cup roster; Spain has an attacker named Nico Williams.
At this World Cup in Qatar, the global game will look more cosmopolitan than ever, more closely reflecting the way globalization has changed our planet. And international soccer will only get muddled up further from here.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a long-time national soccer writer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.
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