One week after a much acclaimed Champions’ League final in Rome, FIFA’s Congress passed a new resolution removing age limits on a player’s ability to change national teams. While the vote received little fanfare as more attention seems to be affixed on whether Kaka will play for AC Milan, Real Madrid or Chelsea, the potential repercussions on international football are enormous.
Before delving into the potential consequences it may be worthwhile to discuss what the actual rule change entails. Originally once a player had played for a national team at any level (whether senior level, U-23, U-17 and so on) that player was prohibited from donning the shirt of another national side. Then a rule revision allowed a player who had played for one national team to switch to another national side so long as the player in question had never played for the full national team and so long as the switch occurred before his 21st birthday.
With Wednesday’s new vote, a player who has never played for the full national team, despite what his age is, can now switch allegiances to a new national team. Mind you, to switch to a new national team that player would be subject to the naturalization requirements and laws of the new country.
I recall a clever advertisement made by gaming giants Electronic Arts promoting their Euro 2004 video game with a picture of Ronaldinho sitting on Rio de Janeiro beach (Copa Cabana I presumed) reading a newspaper with Euro 2004 articles and the catchy phrase that went along the lines of “He won’t be playing, you will.”
The ad highlighted how the best player in the world at the time was sidelined from taking part in perhaps the second most prestigious international competition due to his nationality (and how you wouldn’t be sidelined so long as you shelled out the required monies to buy EA’s video game and “take part” on your Playstation).
Yet four years on, we were watching Brazilians by birth, Marcos Senna, Mehmet Aurelio and Roger Guerreiro play important roles for their new national teams in Euro 2008 (Spain, Türkiye, and Poland, respectively).
Now as we turn the corner to see which thirty one countries will join next year’s hosts South Africa for World Cup 2010, it remains to be seen whether this ruling will be the international version of that seismic “Bosman” ruling back in the 1990s that essentially restructured the transfer market and has given us an important part of the modern game (i.e. a separate “transfer season” in the off-season that is as exciting for some as the real season).
My own personal speculation is that the international game as we know it will now be further diluted into a mercenary market that serves a symbiotic relationship between national team and player. For national teams that traditionally lack the manpower or talent to get onto these big stages, there is a renewed pool of talent to choose from. For players who fail to make the grade on their national teams, and who are over 21 years of age, the doors international football are no longer eternally closed. More importantly they have a stage to potentially raise their stock value for suitor clubs that may never have had an opportunity to assess this hidden talent under the old system. In this new paradigm both the national team and the footballer mutually benefit. Yet this benefit is at the expense of the essence of international football.
What then exactly is the essence of international football? FIFA’s slogan “for the good of the game” has meant more and more recently the inclusion of every conceivable nation to be part of the football community. Sepp Blatter would have that football be played in every corner of the globe and on its face, what true football fan can disagree with that ideal? And to further this goal it only makes sense that those with the knowledge of football be sent forth to nations where football is still in the developing stages. By lifting the age restriction on players from switching nationalities, FIFA’s goal can be further advanced as it allows players who are left without a national team to play for a country that certainly needs an amount of talent and experience. When looking through the FIFA lens, the new rule change is a godsend for underachieving national teams.
But for fans of the international game (who share my view), what real meaning does it have when you have a player on your national team whose only reason for playing is to play international football? Not every player will fit this bill and even those who do will certainly kiss the national team crest and make every effort to memorize the words to their new national anthem to look the part. As Luis Figo once quipped toward his new Brazilian-born teammate Deco, that one could learn the words to the national anthem but could not sing them from the heart. The line between a player who genuinely makes a switch for a new country because he has adapted and naturalized legitimately and a player solely switching for personal gain is blurred and certainly not one that is bright lined.
What value does a World Cup or a European Championship hold when a Brazilian plays for Scotland, or a Scot for Qatar, a Cameroonian playing for San Marino or a Nigerian for China? Even worse, what value will it have when half or more than half of the starting eleven are foreign born? Will Sepp Blatter and FIFA then impose an international 6+5 rule?
This is the direction we appear to be heading for with international football as players who fail to make it beyond the U-23, U-21 or U-17 levels will look for new and greener pastures even in the twilights of their careers. And if FIFA continue this trend of reversing itself, we may very well see a day when a player who has played for the full national team be allowed to switch to another full national team. At that rate the World Cup is destined to be a once-in-a-four year version of the Champions’ League. But perhaps that’s what FIFA is gunning for.
Some will accuse me of being nationalist, xenophobic, politically incorrect and the whole lot, but if we ask ourselves this question without fear of being branded as such, I believe that many will reach the same conclusion that I have.