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Is the integrity of international football under threat?

The controversial international call-ups of Guilherme and Apostolos Giannou are evidence that FIFA needs to tighten up the international eligibility rules or international football runs the risk of both losing its sporting integrity and simply becoming another version of club football. Richard Pike feels strongly about the subject and writes to express his opinion.

Mid-March is upon us and the business end of the football season has arrived where we start to get an idea of the future destination of all the big prizes in both domestic and European football. As Sir Alex Ferguson famously remarked “It’s squeaky-bum time”. It also sees the arrival of the calendar year’s first worldwide international break where top level football across Europe takes a week’s break for a round of international matches. With 2016 being an even-numbered year and in addition a European Championships year for UEFA’s members, this batch of friendly matches has more of an edge to it than your traditional drab and half-hearted friendly international fixture that takes place prior to the start of the European league season in early August. This round is often seen as the last opportunity for players to cement their place in both the thoughts of their international managers and subsequently their country’s final squad for the summer tournament. Often we see some interesting call-ups from national team managers, promising young upstarts who have broken through at club level, recalls for wily old veterans who have been out of the international fold for a while or the first call-up for the form uncapped players at club level (Danny Drinkwater for England and N’Golo Kante for France). However, from my inspection of the recent international call-ups in both Europe and across the rest of the world, two in particular caught my eye with both being highly controversial as they pose a real threat to the sporting integrity of international football.

International Football 2016

The first call up in question is Guilherme Marinato, Lokomotiv Moscow’s 30 year-old Brazilian-born goalkeeper who has been called up to Russia’s national team for their upcoming friendly matches against Lithuania and France. Guilherme, who has played in Russia since 2007, signing for the Railwaymen from Atletico Paranense in his country of birth, recently in November 2015 received his Russian citizenship after having resided in the country for a minimum of 5 years. A further glance down Sport-Express’ article above reveals just how split Russian football fans are at Guilherme’s current call up to the Russian national team and further “naturalised” foreign-born players representing the Russian national team in the future. The question “НУЖНЫ ЛИ НАТУРАЛИЗОВАННЫЕ ИГРОКИ СБОРНОЙ РОССИИ?” which roughly translates as “Does the Russian national team need naturalised players? drew 12,919 responses with 51.4 per cent stating “Yes” and 48.6 per cent stating “No”.

My opinion on cases like this are clear, I have no problem with Guilherme’s decision to obtain Russian citizenship if both him and his family feel settled in the country and comfortable with such a decision. However, I am against any country in any sport using naturalised players for their national team purely because I believe international sport should be one country’s talent pool against another’s. Whilst Brazil may not feel sore about his absence (especially considering they never called him up even when he broke through into Lokomotiv’s team and established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Russia), technically, Brazil here are penalised for being a successful nation at developing and exporting talent as one member from their country’s talent pool they spent years developing has been taken from them. Diego Costa, another player developed by Brazil’s youth teams who made the decision to play for Spain where he had resided and obtained citizenship was another example. Furthermore in the case of Costa, his decision to represent Spain over Brazil raised a lot of controversy and anger in Brazil as he was a player good enough to represent Brazil given their current shortage of top quality strikers.

I would have no objection to Guilherme choosing to represent Russia if he had a link to the country through parentage (either through a parent/parents or a grandparent/grandparents). Furthermore, had he moved to Russia at the age of 6 for example, was educated in the country at secondary school level and had gone through both the Russian Football Union and a Russian football club’s youth development programmes, I would once again have no objection. However, here we are talking about a player with no link through his ancestors and who only moved to Russia at the age of 22 after not being good enough in his homeland as a youngster. Ignoring for a moment whether or not the use of naturalised players is correct or not, do Russia actually need to call up Guilherme? The argument is that woeful performance of their national team at Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 is proof that all options to improve the national team’s performances at both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup (which Russia is hosting) which includes the naturalisation of foreign-born players should be explored. However, in Guilherme’s position, Russia has promising young goalkeepers. Krasnodar recently signed 25 year old Stanislav Kristyuk from SC Braga in Portugal who has impressed me upon watching him in action in his first few games for the club. Mid-table Amkar Perm also have 21 year old Alexsandr Selikhov who has broken through into their first team recently and is first choice for the Russian Under 21’s national team. Going back to Russia potentially naturalising more foreign-born players for their national team in future years, given their youth teams’ results in recent UEFA tournaments, is it necessary to go down this route? Their Under 17’s team won the Under 17’s European Championship in 2013 and a significant chunk of that squad then went on to finish runners up to Spain in last summer’s Under 19 European Championship. Given the majority of that squad would have been 19 years old at that tournament and that the 2018 World Cup is three years on, this generation of players will be 22 years old come the 2018 World Cup with many of them likely to see frequent action in the Russian Premier League from now until then. If Russia’s recent results at youth level had been poor, then the argument for naturalisation would have more merit (even if I still don’t agree with it) but their youth teams have been successful and these young players should be given an opportunity.

Look at Iceland, they qualified for Euro 2016, the first time they have reached a major international football tournament in their history. In their recently announced squad for the March friendlies, not a single player called up is a “Naturalised” player. This feat is even more impressive when you consider that Iceland does not have a professional league like Russia and has a population of just 329,000 people, tiny compared to Russia’s population of 143.5 million. Even Wales has a population nearly 10 times the size of Iceland. That article highlights how the investment in indoor pitches over the last 15 years in Iceland by the Icelandic FA, putting their money into youth development and how patience waiting for that generation to mature has paid off. If Iceland can qualify for a major tournament automatically and along the way defeat the Netherlands home and away (who came 3rd at the last World Cup) without the use of “naturalised” players, in my opinion, there is no excuse for Russia, a country with a much larger population and a much higher standard of domestic league to use them.

Whilst Guilherme’s call up is controversial and provokes strong debates, the second controversial international call-up sounds strong alarm bells about the future direction of international football even further. The player in question is 26 year old Apostolos Giannou who prior to his winter transfer to Chinese Super League club Guangzhou R&F was one of the top goal-scorers in the Greek Super League with Asteras Tripoli scoring 13 goals in 21 games, subsequently winning his first cap for the Greek national team in November 2015 during a 0-0 friendly draw against Turkey. Giannou was called up for international duty once again in the last week, however, not for the Greek national team, rather to the Australian national team for their World Cup Qualifiers against Tajikistan and Jordan. How is this possible? Firstly, whilst Giannou was born in Greece, he grew up in Australia after moving there at a young age and spend his formative years there before moving back to Greece in 2007 at the age of 17. Furthermore, because Greece’s match against Turkey was only a friendly international, Giannou’s international future was not fully committed to Greece according to FIFA’s international eligibility laws, thus allowing Australia to swoop and because their upcoming games are both competitive internationals, he will be Australia’s for good should he take to the field in either. It is my opinion that this ruling is even more of a farce than Naturalisation and I will use further research into Giannou’s history of international call-ups from youth level to senior international level to illustrate my point. Giannou was capped for Australia at Under 17 level, upon his move back to Greece at the age of 17, switched allegiances to Greece playing for their Under 19 and Under 21 national teams before progressing to their full national team for his solitary cap before now throwing his hat back in with Australia. One look at that above trajectory draws you to the conclusion that this is an example of a player who firstly is playing two national football associations off against each other and then subsequently transferring his services between countries, just like players do in the club game between clubs.

International football must not under any circumstances mirror the situation of club football. In Giannou’s case, I can sympathise with Australia for his decision to turn his back on Greece and represent them as his first international call-up beyond schoolboy level (at Under 17 level) was for Australia, so therefore, they have a strong argument to claim he was theirs prior to his initial allegiance switch. Conversely, however, I also feel a lot of sympathy with Greece in this situation, as there is a strong argument that once a player wins his first cap for his country at senior level, that player must be committed to that country and should not be allowed to switch his allegiances once more. Should international football transfers (like this essentially is) continue, it could lead to its devaluation and eventual demise. Cases like Giannou’s could mean the ability of a nation to do well at international football potentially being decided by how big the wallets of a national football association are in terms of paying a player more in appearance fees for his country to get him to switch allegiance. If a player via his birth, upbringing or parentage is eligible to represent more than one country at international level (which is becoming more commonplace nowadays with a vast increase in globalisation and human labour movement around the world compared to 50 years ago), situations like Giannou’s will become ever more common in the upcoming years.

Another objection towards being able to switch allegiance between countries after already being capped at senior level in a non-competitive game is not only will this have the effect of artificially enhancing the talent pool of perceived smaller nations like the naturalisation of foreign-born players and the “grandparent rule” do, in addition it has the reverse effect of artificially increasing the talent pool of a major footballing nation at the expense of a smaller nation. To illustrate, we could have a 16 year old player born in New Zealand to British parents who recently signed a youth contract with Manchester United. He could represent New Zealand at an Under 17 World Cup, emerge as the star player in the tournament and then win a couple of senior caps for New Zealand in friendly matches after the tournament. However, New Zealand by virtue of being placed in Oceania’s qualification could then face a 12 month wait between these two games and their next competitive international, in this time the player in question could break into Manchester United’s first team and establish himself as a key player. At the same time as New Zealand’s next competitive match, the England national team has a European Championships/World Cup qualifier(s), the English FA see every week this players progress for his club and also see that he is not fully committed internationally for New Zealand due to his caps for them being in friendlies. Subsequently, the player is approached and offered a national team allegiance swap and a place in England’s squad for their upcoming qualifiers which the player would likely accept, as he stands much more chance of merely representing his country let alone winning a tournament at a tournament like the World Cup playing for England than playing for New Zealand.

Another country which could benefit from this ruling would be France due to the significant number of footballers in France either born in Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia who moved to France at a young age or were born in France but have a parent/parents from these countries. As above, France could take advantage of having more international competitive matches than the likes of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia by calling up to their national team players who had previously been capped for these nations in friendlies. With the recent introduction by UEFA of their UEFA Nations League which starts in season 2018-19 and replaces most international friendlies, UEFA’s members now have a major advantage over other FIFA Confederations’ members with more competitive matches and therefore, we could see more examples of the above poaching of talent from smaller nations.

New FIFA president Gianni Infantino has a lot in his inbox as he embarks on his first term as new leader of the organisation, fighting corruption, imposing term limits for the President, the continued fight against all forms of racism and discrimination in the sport and potentially an increase in the number of teams participating in the World Cup. All these are very important, however, as the man charged with presiding over all international football, he also has a responsibility to act on the two above examples of Guilherme and Giannou to preserve the sporting integrity of International football. If mid-ranking countries like Russia are turning to naturalisation to improve their national teams, then lower-ranked emerging countries like Qatar (who will have a World Cup in 2022) and China (who will inevitably host a World Cup in future years and whose club sides have lured many uncapped South American players to their league with huge transfer fees and wages) could very likely also choose this path. It is a path which will incorrectly inflate their talent pools, prove a huge slap in the face for facilities like Qatar’s ASPIRE sporting academy and programmes like Xi Jinping’s recent investment in youth football in China and finally is unfair on nations like Iceland who do not go down the naturalisation route.

My three reforms to international football’s eligibility rules are the following. Firstly, eligibility for a nation is solely through birth, parentage, grand parentage or having moved to a country at no older than 11 years old (thus going through secondary education and having resided in a country for 5 years before their potential call-up for a country at Under 17 level) with player naturalisation outlawed. Secondly, once a player has played for the first time for a country at any age level (Under 17’s/19’s/21’s etc) that is an unbreakable commitment and the player cannot switch allegiances even if eligible to do so. Finally, the third reform strengthens the second reform and kills off potential future cases like Guilherme and Giannou. Once a player signs his first youth/trainee contract at a club at the age of 15/16, he must also be forced to sign an international eligibility contract declaring which country he wants to represent in both youth and senior international matches. Once that declaration has been made, it can never be allowed to be changed. This third reform would mean that Guilherme would be forced to declare for Brazil at the age of 16, thus eliminating the possibility of naturalisation and would also mean that Giannou would be unable to play a farcical game of international musical chairs between Greece and Australia at youth and senior level for his services.

One thing that has always set football aside from other sports that I like such as Rugby League and Cricket is that its eligibility laws historically for the international game have been more strict and do not border on farcical like they do in the sports highlighted above. See Boyd Rankin and Ed Joyce playing for firstly Ireland, then switching to England, subsequently not making the grade after a few years before then switching back to representing Ireland in international cricket as an example of how farcical the situations can become. However, recent international call-ups like Guilherme and Giannou highlighted above now threaten to turn international football into the farce that international Rugby League and Cricket are. International representation in any sport either individual or team should be the preserve of the very few highest ranked individuals of that country’s sporting talent pools. It is imperative therefore, that FIFA acts decisively to preserve this.

Written by Richard Pike.

Richard Pike

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