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Who Really Benefits From the International Players’ Multiple Allegiances in Football?

Who Really Benefits From the International Players’ Multiple Allegiances in Football?

Who Really Benefits From the International Players’ Multiple Allegiances in Football?| Afrocritik

Playing football at the national level is an opportunity reserved for only a select few professional footballers. But who gets to play for who and how? 

By Tuka Letura 

For a lot of players, representing their national team is what brings the highest honour, as well as what sets them apart from others. In that light, playing at the World Cup is without argument the pinnacle of any footballer’s career. A greater percentage of players always highlight this and are almost certain to place winning with their national team over their club sides. However, to achieve this, the player must first belong to and play for a national team. So, what truly qualifies a player to represent a national team? 

The international football governing body, the Federacion Internacionale de Football Association (FIFA), stipulates that “any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the association of that country”. FIFA further specifies that players eligible to represent more than one country can do so if, in addition to holding the relevant nationality, they fulfil one of the following conditions: 

  • they are born in the territory of the relevant football association. 
  • their biological mother or father was born in the territory of the relevant association
  • a grandparent was born in the territory of the relevant association
  • they have lived in the territory of the relevant association for at least five years.

This flexibility in player eligibility for representing different countries raises two key questions: First, do some countries consistently benefit or lose out in the competition for talent? If so, how does this happen, and at whose expense?

Countries with strong football infrastructures like England and France often benefit from this flexibility. They attract talented players from diverse backgrounds who have earned eligibility through birth, parentage, or from holding permanent nationality. These countries also benefit from a high number of top talents available to them, ultimately giving them the luxury of choice. 

Inclusion into international football happens early into the careers of these players, some coming as young as 12-14 years old and even earlier. Between this time and every other age-grade level of international football, a great number of players would have featured at least once for these countries. This thus puts them in an eager position where they foresee a prospect to play at the senior level. 

It’s important to note, however, that many of these players never get that call-up to the senior level —- in this context, European teams, and particularly England. And for a smaller percentage of those who play well enough at their respective clubs to earn a call-up, it’s more likely to be a one-off than a regular show. 

Players like Wilfried Zaha are recent testimony to cases like these. He played for both England’s under-19s and England’s under-21s before getting a call-up to the senior side during his days of blistering form at Crystal Palace. He made his debut on the 14th of August 2013 in a friendly game against Sweden, under Roy Hodgson who was the manager at the time. His next and final appearance for England would come in another friendly game exactly nine months later, against Scotland.

Two games, 20 minutes played and that was about it. Between then and 2017 when Zaha eventually got called up by Côte D’Ivoire, he did not play international football, despite being one of the best wingers in his position who was eligible to represent England — an opinion shared by a majority of sports enthusiasts and experts. Zaha’s second international debut also came against Sweden, and again as a substitute, as Côte d’Ivoire faced them in a friendly in Dubai, where he assisted the winner five minutes after coming on. He’s gone on to make 30 more appearances for Ivory Coast since then.

But Zaha’s case is, as already highlighted, recent. Before him, the biggest story of a similar situation was John Fashanu, who, just like Zaha, played only two games for England. His career with the Three Lions lasted four days where he started against Chile and Scotland in successive games at the Rous Cup in May 1989, which England eventually won.  

John Fashanu at Rous Cup scaled
 John Fashanu playing for England in 1989 at the Rous Cup

Fashanu, born in London to a Nigerian father and a Guyanese mother, has on multiple occasions expressed his regret in not representing Nigeria. On one end, the former England international claims that demands for bribes by Super Eagles’ coaches cost him the chance to play for Nigeria. On “No Holds Back”, a sports show hosted by Ifeanyi Udeze on Brila FM, he claimed that coach Otto Glória, who was at the helm of managing Nigeria’s senior national team demanded money before he could join the Eagles. 

There are other versions of why Fashanu didn’t play for Nigeria. Some claim he completely ignored Nigeria, while other versions of the story suggest that Fashanu didn’t consider himself good enough to make the team. The reality of not playing for Nigeria earned him the scorn of Nigerian football fans, who weren’t privy to substantial information on why he did so.

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There are so many cases like Fashanu and Zaha’s, where players hinge on for a chance at international football but never get it. When some do, it’s as long as a fireworks show.

Some players, like Ademola Lookman of Nigeria, Tariq Lamptey of Ghana, and most recently Axel Tuanzebe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have traced their way back to their respective countries of birth, as is the case with Tuanzebe, or that of their parentage, as is with Lamptey and Lookman.

Tuanzebe and Kylian Mbappe scaled
Tuanzebe tackles Kylian Mbappé in the Champions League

Tuanzebe, who has now been promoted twice to the Premier League after stints at Aston Villa and, most recently, Ipswich Town, was the standout player when his boyhood football club, Manchester United, faced European giants Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League in 2020, where he was up against Mbappé, Neymar, and Di Maria. After years of not getting a call-up for England, partly due to his injuries and other contributing factors, he’s settled to play for his country of birth. 

On the surface, it looks like African teams get the short end of the stick, and there is some truth to this. To read as is, players who fail to make it in Europe are the ones who end up playing for African teams, with only a few exceptions. This automatically leaves African sides further away in terms of the quality of players, compared to their European and South American counterparts when events like the World Cup come around.

One of the major factors that deter players who have the option to play in England and Europe in general, is to opt to stay there instead. Fashanu’s claim isn’t one that’s unheard of and issue that bear semblance to it abound in Africa. The issue of bribes is one that needs resolving if the wish is to attract the best foreign-based players. Other necessary improvements include upgrading facilities and developing local players or those who are only eligible to play for one nationality, to enhance the competitiveness of the national team. Better facilities and a stronger player development system can make playing for the national team more competitive. Finally, player welfare has to be of utmost importance for countries and their football associations. 

Tuka Letura is an experienced sports writer with over five years of experience in the craft. He uses data and statistics to provide analysis and commentary. From regional to worldwide competitions, he has covered a wide range of sports-related events and topics. He is devoted to sharing his enthusiasm for sports with his audience and engaging them with interesting anecdotes and viewpoints.

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