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Immigration, migration and nationality in the World Cup

What does nationality mean ahead of the 2022 World Cup?

3 men near a large fifa world cup sign
General view of fans ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 [File: Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters]

With days before the opening of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, players and teams are still changing countries. Some are even being questioned if the country they are playing for is the country they are from.  What is the history of nationality in football and can it keep up with the global world of today?

In this episode: 

  • Maher Mezahi (@MezahiMaher), African football journalist
  • Jay Harris (@jaydmharris), football journalist at TheAthletic.com
  • Luis Vidal (​​@LucVidal), football journalist at The18.com
  • Mas-Ud Didi Dramani, assistant coach for The Black Stars, Ghana’s national team
  • Enock Muchinjo (@eno_muchinjo), Zimbabwean football journalist

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net. 

Halla Mohieddeen: Migration, immigration, nationality. They’re complicated issues. Governments struggle with them. Families struggle with them and over the decades, football’s been struggling with them too.

Maher Mezahi: There are still, I know in Ghana, people crossing their fingers hoping that players like Callum Hudson-Odoi, or Eddie Nketiah will finally make the switch from England to Ghana.

Halla Mohieddeen: Just days away from the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Ghanaian fans are hoping to add a few more players to their team.

Maher Mezahi: These are players that played for clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal, some of the biggest clubs in the world, and that could still provide a plus for the Ghana national team. So this is still happening at the very last minute.

Halla Mohieddeen: Could there be more last minute nationality change ups? Will they change the course of the World Cup? And what is driving these players and others around the world to make the switch? I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.

[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: Maher Mezahi’s been busy recently tallying a list of last minute World-Cup-related nationality change ups.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Maher Mezahi: We had these players switch to African national teams: Bryan Mbeumo, Georges-Kévin N’Koudou, Olivier Ntcham, Inaki Williams, Tariq Lamptey, Denis Odoi, Rami Kaib, Yan Valery, Chaïm El Djebali, Ismail Jakobs…

Halla Mohieddeen: Maher goes on to list more than 10 players who changed nationalities in the past few months. He reports on football in Africa for Al Jazeera and other outlets. And watching where players start and where they end up is part of the job.

Maher Mezahi: You have to understand that the sports eligibility laws, when it comes to nationality, has been something that’s really been changing and shifting over the last 20 years.

Halla Mohieddeen: Like these players, where he’s from – is also complicated.

Maher Mezahi: And I moved to Algeria at the age of 25.

Halla Mohieddeen: Maher’s also Canadian. He grew up there.

Maher Mezahi: And so it’s just been really cool to see Canada make it. Algeria hasn’t made it. But I’m a pan-Africanist at heart. I’m gonna go for the five African teams.

Jay Harris: Dual nationality is not just complicated in football. It’s complicated in life.

Halla Mohieddeen: We’ll also hear from Jay Harris. He is in London and writes for the sports site The Athletic.

Jay Harris: I was born in the United Kingdom, but my dad’s side of the family are from Barbados. Also, I found out a few years ago that my grandma’s side can be traced back to Ghana. So I had my hopes pinned on England and Ghana getting revenge on Uruguay.

Luis Vidal: My name is Louis Vidal and I’m a sports writer for Eighteen.com, a soccer website based in Colorado. I write in English and Spanish.

Halla Mohieddeen: Luis is Chilean by birth but lives in Boston now.

A photograph at Flag Plaza in Doha, Qatar.
A photograph at Flag Plaza in Doha, Qatar. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: So, even for those covering the sport – nationality can be tricky. But to better understand what’s happening- it’s probably helpful to go back to Maher and Africa where FIFA’s latest rules about nationality got their start.

Maher Mezahi: What happened is African nations lobbied FIFA on three occasions: 2004, 2009, and most recently in 2017, to get eligibility rules changed, so that they could recruit a lot of players from the diaspora.

Halla Mohieddeen: And particularly from Europe. Maher describes the European teams as superpowers. They’ve won more than half of the world cups.

Maher Mezahi: There were these great African players born in France or Spain, or England, and they would play for those youth national teams, but then they weren’t quite good enough to play for those superpowers of world football, at the World Cups. But, they were still good enough to make a real impact with the African national teams.

Halla Mohieddeen: And Maher remembers one particular player – who literally changed the game. He was born in Spain but his parents were from Morocco.

Maher Mezahi: His name is Munir El Haddadi. Highly touted youngster, came up through the ranks at FC Barcelona, one of the most famous teams in the world.

Newsreel: Haddadi! 

Maher Mezahi: And at the age of 17 to 18, they wanted to select him to play for the Moroccan National team. Spain comes in and calls him up. They know Morocco’s interested. So Spain will say, ‘Come play for the Spanish national team!’ to block his eligibility, because once he plays for the Spanish senior team, that’s it.

Halla Mohieddeen: At that time, according to FIFA rules, once you play for one national team or federation, there is no path to playing for any other country, including Morocco again.

Maher Mezahi: He would’ve been blocked for the rest of his life.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s what happened. Because he played for Spain in 2014, he was stuck playing for Spain.

Maher Mezahi: So Morocco’s frustrated with that.

Halla Mohieddeen: Particularly because they’d just qualified for the World Cup. This was 2018 and it was the first time Morocco had made it this far in decades. So they had high hopes and thought Munir could help. Munir’s a good player – a lot better than you or me. But according to Maher, he wasn’t at the very top.

Maher Mezahi: He’s in that position of limbo where not good enough for Europe, but good enough for Morocco to make a difference. So, the Moroccan Federation, they petitioned FIFA and they said, ‘Please, let’s change the law. Let’s not make it if the player played once for the senior national team, he’s automatically tied to that team for the rest of his life. Let’s make it three matches.’ Because one match, they should be able to see if they like the other setup, and so it took two, three years to be approved, but FIFA finally agreed,

Halla Mohieddeen: And in 2020, FIFA made their last change to the nationality rules.

Maher Mezahi: Morocco was spearheading that change and now Munir plays for the Moroccan national team.

Newsreel: It’s Morocco, go forward. It’s Munir, Munir with the shot, corner shot…

Maher Mezahi: A happy ending to the story.

Halla Mohieddeen: A happy ending for Morocco, at least. And Europe went along with it, Maher says, because the players Africa usually taps aren’t the very top of the top. But European national teams can still put up a fight if there’s a player they really want.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Maher Mezahi: European nations have been known to do that. If they know an African team is interested, they might step in and call the player up just to block them, and then they’ll know in the future if they actually want to use that player or not. What some European teams can get frustrated about is they’re gonna say, ‘We’ve invested so much in our academies, this player was educated in our country. Speaks the language, often speaks better Spanish than Arabic.’ And they’ll feel like we’ve wasted all these resources and now he’s gonna go play for Morocco. And so you can understand how Spain, or France would be quite frustrated at times.

Halla Mohieddeen: And there is a longer story here too. In the 1970s and ‘80s the dynamic was different – not as many African players were playing in Europe.

Flags of participating teams are shown at Katara in Doha, Qatar.
Flags of participating teams are shown at Katara in Doha, Qatar. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Maher Mezahi: Actually, a lot of African governments, they had socialist tendencies and they could be a little bit hard line. And what they would do is they would prohibit players from leaving the country to play in Europe until they were 28-years-old. That was seen as an age where, perhaps they’re past their prime and they can go make some money abroad in Europe. But really, since the ‘90s and that explosion of the commodification of world football the Sky Sports deal in with the Premier League, and the money that’s been injected into European football, it’s almost impossible to hold onto players on the continent now.

Newsreel: Sky had all their football rights and that’s what drove their subscriber growth. The premier leagues have unanimously agreed to a three year European broadcasting rights deal which will take them up until 2025. 

Maher Mezahi: If they’re good enough to play Champions League football in Europe, they’re gonna go to Europe to make the money, but also to play at a high level. I mean, if they want to keep progressing and getting better, they’re gonna wanna play in those matches, and I don’t think anybody holds that against them.

Halla Mohieddeen: And so in the last two or three World Cups Maher says African countries have been going on these recruiting missions to Europe – with one goal.

Maher Mezahi: Grab as many players as they can. So that’s what I’ve been keeping a track of.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s how Maher came up with his list. Each of the players has their own story he says.

Maher Mezahi: For some, it’s as easy as saying, ‘Okay, I want to play for you and I’ll show up.’ For others, they’ve been tracking them for years and years on end.

Halla Mohieddeen: And some of these African teams have gotten quite sophisticated in their recruiting process.

Maher Mezahi: Some of these federations have full-time scouts or a designated person within the federation whose sole purpose is to find these players and to recruit them. Federations in Africa, they fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Sport, which is of course part of the federal government budget. And so these federations will have millions and millions of dollars at their disposal at times.

In some countries I know that federations have sponsoring deals with, let’s say, a mobile telecom company.

Halla Mohieddeen: It’s easy to get cynical about all of this. But Maher says  despite the money and the power these recruiters have, the message comes down to one thing.

Maher Mezahi: Your family’s gonna be so proud of you representing your country. It’s nothing like you’ve ever experienced before. They will try to tug on the heartstrings.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Maher Mezahi: And football, despite its increased commodification, I think that still is the core message.

Halla Mohieddeen: But then there’s the question about what happens once these players arrive in their new home.

Didi Dramani: Iñaki Williams is playing for Athletic Bilbao. He didn’t grow up in Ghana.

Halla Mohieddeen: Didi Dramani is an assistant coach for Ghana’s national team, The Black Stars.

Newsreel: Here’s Iñaki Williams.

Halla Mohieddeen: And when Iñaki came to Ghana, Dramani was impressed.

Didi Dramani: I listened to his interviews and he tried to even speak the Ghanaian languages. And then, when I meet him, I greet him in Ghanaian, and he responds in Ghanaian. So these are small details. They are small things, but very huge.

Halla Mohieddeen: Enock Muchinjo wishes more players had that attitude. He’s a sportswriter from Zimbabwe.

Enock Muchinjo: There’s been circumstances when African teams have been trying to get European born players and it has taken quite a long time to convince some of them. I think when it’s reach to a point whereby somebody has to think twice that search has to stop then and there.

Halla Mohieddeen: Right now there are only five African teams in the World Cup and 13 European teams. And if these players don’t want to play in Africa they need to change the rules in a different way, he says.

Enock Muchinjo: We need to have more African teams first in the World Cup to attract these kind of players to want to play for their countries of origin.

Halla Mohieddeen: But do Latin American and Caribbean countries, teams and players feel the same way? That’s after the break.

Halla Mohieddeen: In London, Jay Harris writes for the sports site The Athletic.

Jay Harris: It’s just something that’s always intrigued me how footballers come to a decision about who they should represent.

Football jerseys are displayed at the FIFA Museum presented by Hyundai in Doha, Qatar.
Football jerseys are displayed at the FIFA Museum presented by Hyundai in Doha, Qatar. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: Are there any nationalities or countries which tend to see this more than others, players switching nationality or leaving their country to play for another one?

Jay Harris: Yeah, England again is another obvious example. You only need to look at England’s potential squad ahead of the World Cup to see how diverse it is and the influence from so many different countries. Maybe two of the most obvious ones are Declan Rice and Jack Grealish. They had represented the Republic of Ireland and then obviously switched to England. You’ve got Raheem Sterling who was born in Jamaica and now plays for England. There’s obviously large pockets of Afro-Caribbean communities across the UK. Any country that’s got a lot of immigrant communities, I think it’s a fairly common phenomenon.

Halla Mohieddeen: Why do you think this happens?

Jay Harris: Nationality obviously strikes at the heart of personal identity. And without getting too philosophical, that’s something that changes throughout a person’s life. So, for example, I spoke to one player, Gavin Hoyte.

Newsreel: Gavin Hoyte an advanced position, picks up the rebound and slots it at home. So that’s four. 

Jay Harris: He played for England, at the under 17 World Cup. This is way back in 2007. England and Trinidad and Tobago, both qualified and Trinidad and Tobago approached him and he said he felt he almost didn’t deserve to represent Trinidad and Tobago at that point in his life. He’d never been over there. He was born and raised in England. He grew up dreaming or playing for England at Wembley. He was playing for Arsenal at the time. He just felt like it’s not right for me to go and take someone else’s place. But then obviously as he’s grown up and maybe his cultural connection to his country’s become even stronger and he didn’t get the opportunity to play for England. He’s then revisited that and he switched his mind. And Gavin Hoyte, had never been to Trinidad before. And he was very aware of that. And he said, I was a little bit concerned that the players would look at me as if I was a foreigner, someone who was born and raised in England, spoke in a different way, dressed in a different way, behaved in a different way, was coming into the squad. And he said, they just all treated me amazingly.

Halla Mohieddeen: Is there something in football,  like if, you know, footballers think, well, I can’t make the grade for England. Is that a factor at all or not?

Jay Harris: Yeah, I think it’s a fair thing to say, if you kind of break it down, the last Caribbean team, for example, to qualify for a World Cup was Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. The kind of infrastructure and the organisation for those countries is nowhere near the same level as a France, an England, a Germany, a Spain. So as a professional, ambitious footballer, I’ve then gotta say well do I play for the country that I’ve got a closer connection to? Although I’m probably never gonna play at the pinnacle. Or do I switch eligibility to England?

Halla Mohieddeen: It’s A difficult calculation to make. And I know there have been some complaints from African and Caribbean players about fair treatments in Europe. Is that something that encourages them to leave Europe or the UK to play for teams elsewhere?

Jay Harris: You would imagine so, I can’t think of any specific example where players come out and very publicly spoken about feeling maybe undervalued by one association and switching to another. But I think what it comes down to is kind of feeling comfortable and feeling like you can be yourself.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: Yeah, you know, I was born in the UK. My father was Lebanese, It is really interesting this sort of idea of, where are you from? Where does your allegiance lie?

Jay Harris: If you feel very aligned with English culture, maybe that’s where you stay. Whereas I’ve got lots of friends. One of my best friends is from Cameroon, even though he was born and raised in England, he speaks French when he is at home. The language of Cameroon. So, I’m sure he does feel far more attached to Cameroon than he does to England. So he might feel like this is a far better representation of who I am as a person and my cultural identity. I’d rather play for Cameroon. It just depends on each individual’s circumstances.

Halla Mohieddeen: We’ve named a number of players who have dual nationalities and have played for different countries. But in some ways we’ve just scratched the surface. Lionel Messi, arguably the best in the game, plays for Argentina, his home country but he also has citizenship in Spain. The US team has a number of players with dual nationalities. And as Maher, who we first heard from reminds us, the host country Qatar is really small.

Newsreel: The 2022 FIFA World Cup is… Qatar!

Halla Mohieddeen: Their native population is a fraction of the country’s actual population, and their team has players who hail from a variety of different countries.

Maher Mezahi: They have players that are from Sudan. They have players from Algeria. They have players from Iraq.. They’ve been playing for the Qatari national team for more than 10 years now. But it becomes interesting from an identity standpoint. Do Qatar’s supporters feel like these players really represent them? Are they gonna be proud of their successes?

A view of World Cup team flags in Doha, Qatar.
A view of World Cup team flags in Doha, Qatar. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: And now, even days ahead of the World Cup’s November 20 start date – questions of nationality are still being decided. With the potential to change the entire line-up. And sports blogger Luis Vidal says this is a big issue.

Luis Vidal: So, Byron Castillo, according to the official paper, he’s an Ecuadorian citizen, born in a town called Playas.

Halla Mohieddeen: An Ecuadorian citizen playing for Ecuador in the World Cup – simple enough.

Luis Vidal: However, Chile, claimed that his documents were forged as he’s in reality, a Colombian citizen born in a town called Tumaco.

Newsreel: Chile’s FA claims that Ecuador right back Byron Castillo shouldn’t have played in eight World Cup qualifiers because he’s actually Colombian. 

Luis Vidal: And following that logic, since he’s not an Ecuadorian citizen, again, according to Chile, he shouldn’t have been eligible to play for Ecuador. And why is Chile so interested in this?

Halla Mohieddeen: Because if Byron Castillo is Colombian – that could give Chile a chance at the World Cup with just days before the opening match.

Newsreel: That would mean that Chile would take Ecuador’s place at the World Cup.

Luis Vidal: So, it’s days before the opening game between Ecuador and Qatar.

Newsreel: The court acknowledges that Castillo’s passport contained false information, but maintains that the footballer was eligible to play in the World Cup qualifying preliminary phase. Ecuador was sanctioned for the case of the player Byron Castillo, but will be able to play in the World Cup in Qatar.

Halla Mohieddeen: And Luis admits the Castillo case is pretty rare, but when it comes to migration and football, the system is far from perfect.

Luis Vidal: It could be better. There used to be, like, a more fair thing between South America and Europe. But most of the talent went to Europe and it started to be a little more difficult for South America to catch up. A lot of African players started to play for national teams in Europe too.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: One idea he says is to open up the World Cup to more African, Asian and South American teams. The other is to recognize that immigration – happens. It’s part of the world we live in today.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Luis Vidal: We live in a society where immigration is a normal thing to do, a way for looking for opportunities. But I don’t know how that could be transmitted in a legal way or in a way that left everybody happy

Halla Mohieddeen: Jay Harris agrees. Life is complex, but in sport you still have to pick sides.

Jay Harris: In football, you’re either one or the other. Whereas, in real life, we’re all just a kind of perfect blend of all the different places and countries that we come from.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s the Take. This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Alexandra Locke, Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman and me, Halla Mohieddeen.

Our sound designer is Alex Roldan and our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Our head of audio is Ney Alvarez.

You can read Maher and Enock’s stories on Al Jazeera.com. Jay’s story on Caribbean footballers heading back to the Caribbean is on The Athletic.com and the soccer blog Luis writes for is the 18.com.

We’ll be back on Monday.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Chloe K. Li with our host, Halla Mohieddeen. Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

Source: Al Jazeera