FIFA eligibility rules describe the criteria that are used to determine whether an association football player is allowed to represent a particular country in officially recognised international competitions and friendly matches. Eligibility rules are implemented and maintained by FIFA, the governing body for international football. In the 20th century, FIFA allowed a player to represent any national team, as long as the player held citizenship of that country. In 2004, in reaction to the growing trend towards naturalisation of foreign players in some countries, FIFA implemented a significant new ruling that requires a player to demonstrate a "clear connection" to any country they wish to represent. FIFA has used its authority to overturn results of competitive international matches that feature ineligible players.
Di Stefano's Real Madrid team-mate Ferenc Puskás also played for Spain after amassing 85 caps for Hungary earlier in his career. A third high-profile instance of a player switching international football nationalities is Jose Altafini, who played for Brazil in the 1958 FIFA World Cup and for Italy in the subsequent 1962 FIFA World Cup.
Other 20th century examples of players officially representing more than one country – excluding those resulting from changes to geopolitical borders e.g. East Germany/Germany, Soviet Union/Ukraine, Yugoslavia/Croatia – are:
A number of players have additionally represented one country/territory that is not recognised by FIFA as well as a FIFA recognised country, such as Jocelyn Angloma (France and Guadeloupe) and Kristian Nushi (Albania and Kosovo).
Furthermore, some international players have played for another FIFA-recognised country in unofficial international matches, i.e. fixtures not recognised by FIFA as full internationals. This category includes England international Gordon Hodgson, who has an amateur cap for South Africa, and the aforementioned di Stefano, who also has four caps for Colombia. These caps are not officially recognised due to a dispute between FIFA and the Colombian Football Federation at the time.
Since 2004, FIFA has implemented a series of significant changes to the rules covering international eligibility. The new rulings are more stringent and set additional requirements that determine which country a player may represent in international football.
In January 2004, a new ruling came into effect that permitted a player to represent one country at youth international level and another at senior international level, provided that the player applied before their 21st birthday. The first player to do so was Antar Yahia, who played for the France under-18s before representing Algeria in qualifiers for the 2004 Olympic Games. More recent examples include Sone Aluko, who has caps for the England under-19s and Nigeria, and Andrew Driver, a former England under-21 representative who is committed to the Scotland national team.
In March 2004, FIFA amended its wider policy on international eligibility. This was reported to be in response to a growing trend in some countries, such as Qatar and Togo, to naturalise players born in Brazil (and elsewhere) that have no apparent ancestral links to their new country of citizenship.
An emergency FIFA committee ruling judged that players must be able to demonstrate a "clear connection" to a country that they had not been born in but wished to represent. This ruling explicitly stated that, in such scenarios, the player must have at least one parent or grandparent who was born in that country, or the player must have been resident in that country for at least two years.
In 2003, Togo had fielded six naturalised players (Hamílton, Mikimba, Bill, Fábio Oliveira, Cris and Fabinho) that took part in qualification for the 2004 African Cup of Nations and the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Equatorial Guinea had eight naturalised players at the request of Equatorial Guinea Sports Minister Ruslán Obiang Nsue (Danilo, Ronan, André Neles, Daniel Martins, Léo Quirino, Fernando, Anderson and Alex) between 2005 and 2007. They took part in the 2006 CEMAC Cup and qualification for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations.
In November 2007, Blatter told the BBC: "If we don't stop this farce, if we don't take care about the invaders from Brazil towards Europe, Asia and Africa then, in the 2014 or the 2018 World Cup, out of the 32 teams you will have 16 full of Brazilian players."
The residency requirement for players lacking birth or ancestral connections with a specific country was extended from two to five years in May 2008 at FIFA's Congress as part of Blatter's efforts to preserve the integrity of competitions involving national teams.
The relevant current FIFA statute, Article 17: Acquisition of a new nationality, states:
Any Player who ... [assumes] a new nationality and who has not played international football [in a match ... in an official competition of any category or any type of football for one Association] shall be eligible to play for the new representative team only if he fulfills one of the following conditions:
(a) He was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
(b) His biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
(c) His grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
(d) He has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association.
Under the criteria generally, it is possible for a player to have a choice of representing one of several national teams. Defender Nikola Vujadinović, for example, would be eligible to play for the senior teams of Serbia, Montenegro or Bulgaria. It is not uncommon for national team managers and scouts to attempt to persuade players to change their FIFA nationality; in June 2011, for example, Scotland manager Craig Levein confirmed that his colleagues had started a dialogue with United States under-17 international Jack McBean in an attempt to persuade him to represent Scotland in the future.
In June 2009, FIFA Congress passed a motion that removed the age limit for players who had already played for a country's national team at youth level to change national associations. This ruling features in Article 18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes.
Unless geopolitical changes play a role, players are generally not allowed to switch nationalities if they have made senior appearances for one FIFA-recognised country in competitive fixtures. One exception is Thiago Motta, who has caps for Brazil in competitive fixtures but in 2011 received special permission from FIFA to represent Italy. Friendly match appearances do not commit a player to one country (though a player is usually able to switch to another national side only if he held the nationality of the second country at the time he represented his first choice national team); Jermaine Jones played several friendlies for Germany in 2008 but has played for the United States since 2010. A second instance is Belgium-born midfielder Mehdi Carcela-González, who has two caps for Belgium in official friendly matches, but has played for Morocco since 2011. A FIFA Player's Status Committee is responsible for making such judgements.
FIFA takes punitive action against teams that field ineligible players. In August 2011, FIFA expelled Syria from the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification process following the appearance of George Mourad in a senior qualification match against Tajikistan. Mourad had made friendly match appearances for Sweden earlier in his career, but had not requested permission from FIFA to change national associations prior to playing for Syria.
There are no restrictions on players that wish to switch national associations at youth level. Alex Zahavi has represented the Israel under-21s, the United States under-20s, the Portugal under-19s, the Portugal under-18s and the Portugal under-17s.
Due to the United Kingdom's position in world football as a sovereign state that has four national teams, there is an additional agreement between national football associations of the United Kingdom; England (FA), Scotland (SFA), Wales (FAW), Northern Ireland (IFA) and FIFA. The agreement has been in place since 1993, although the agreement has since become more formal and requires ratification from FIFA.
The agreement is often erroneously thought to be a response to cases similar to Maik Taylor, who was born in Germany to an English father and chose to represent Northern Ireland at international level despite having no ties to the nation. Taylor was eligible to play for Northern Ireland due to FIFA regulations allowing him to. The relevant statute of the time read: "Any player who is a naturalised citizen of a country in virtue of that country’s laws shall be eligible to play for a national or representative team of that country." As there is no Great Britain national team, he was eligible to choose a "representative team of the country" and opted for Northern Ireland. Players in the same situation today would only be allowed to represent the territory of their (grand)parent's birth place as the clause has been amended to refer to the Football Association's "territory" and not "country".
The home nations have agreed to remove a clause that enables players to gain eligibility for one of the four national teams due to residency. The FIFA statutes state that "Associations sharing a common nationality may make an agreement under which item (d) of par. 1 of this article is deleted completely or amended to specify a longer time limit". The clause removed is:
(d) He has lived continuously on the territory of the relevant Association for at least two years
The removal of the clause also prevents players from a home nation playing in another for two years and becoming eligible for the latter's national team.
Former FA Executive David Davies confirmed that England had once considered calling up Italian Carlo Cudicini, Brazilian Edu and Frenchmen Steed Malbranque and Louis Saha during Sven-Göran Eriksson's time as England manager.
In October 2008, Spanish striker Nacho Novo said that he would apply for a British passport if it meant he'd become eligible to play for Scotland national football team. The SFA stated that he would not be eligible as they would abide by the agreement.
In February 2009, the Scottish FA's Gordon Smith put forward a proposal that would allow players educated in the FA's territory who otherwise had no blood connections to the nation to become eligible to represent the nation. The rule was ratified by FIFA in October 2009.
The Home nations agreed to introduce a new clause that allows a player to gain eligibility for a British national team if he receives 5 years of education in the territory of the relevant association:
(d) He has engaged in a minimum of five years education under the age of 18 within the territory of the relevant association—Home nations agreement
As a direct result of the clause change, English-born Andrew Driver became eligible to play for the Scotland national team in June 2012. Driver was initially only eligible to represent England's national team despite living in Scotland since the age of 11. Andy Dorman, who had previously been ineligible for Wales despite living in Hawarden for most of life became eligible to represent Wales. He was called up in November 2009 and made his début for Wales on 23 May 2010 against Croatia at the Stadion Gradski.
The removal of the clause and additional implementation of an alternative is sometimes referred to as a "gentleman's agreement".
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