At the 2022 World Cup, Qatar may take the lead in a debate about the legitimacy of foreign-born players representing the country. In 2015, the Qatari national men’s team played a friendly match against Algeria where six out of eleven players on the pitch were foreign born. In 2019, Qatar won the Asian Cup. However, the semi-finalist, the UAE, lodged a complaint that star player Almoez Ali and defender Bassam al-Rawi were not eligible to play. What is at stake?
Naturalized Football Players
In the recent past, the Qatari men’s football team was criticized for using “nationalized” or foreign-born athletes to represent the country. In 2004, FIFA cited the intention of three Brazilian footballers—Aílton, Dedé, and Leandro—to play for the Qatar national team. The then President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, demanded a committee to strengthen eligibility regulations in order to make these arrangements impossible.
But what exactly is wrong with the representation of football players with limited ties to the country they represent? Prior to the 2010 World Cup preliminary draw, Blatter’s major concern was that: “If we don’t take care about the invaders from Brazil, then we could have problems at the 2014 and 2018 World Cup finals.” He noted that: “Out of 32 teams at the finals, we will still have other nationalities but there could be teams full of Brazilian players.”
This is a clear and typical “what if” overreaction. If we look at the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, Sport and Nation research has shown that between 8–12 percent of the athletes in major tournaments throughout its history are foreign-born. Naturally, there are huge differences between countries. Nations with huge talent pools and big populations (like Brazil) have never selected foreign-born players at a FIFA World Cup, whereas countries with migrants (like the USA) or countries with former colonies (like the UK or France) have larger numbers of foreign-born players.
According to current FIFA regulations, national team players need to hold citizenship of the country they represent. In cases of dual citizenship, players have to choose one country to represent. Until recently, if players with dual nationality played one official match in the national team of a country, they could not change alliances. This changed in 2020 because FIFA noted that young players with dual nationality should not be forced to make an immediate choice to play for a nation at an early stage of their careers.
Nowadays FIFA regulations state that players with dual nationality may appear in a maximum of three matches for one country and then choose to switch allegiances. In addition, players who lived in a country before the age of 10 can be eligible to play for that country after living there for three years, and those who lived in a country after the age of 10 can be eligible after five years. Qatari player Almoez Ali moved to Qatar as a child (under 10), and so the new rules would have made him eligible to play for Qatar regardless of his birthplace.
The consequence for the Aspire Academy in Qatar is that players fit this regulation. By attracting foreign-born (and local) talent at an early age, these athletes may eventually become eligible to compete for Qatar. This would enable countries like Qatar to compete at a higher level and therefore create more interest in football at a grassroots level as well. This in itself could become part of national identity, as Ross Griffin has argued in a recent CIRS blog.
I encourage FIFA to create more flexible eligibility rules for players and national teams (especially for small states with limited talent-pools).
Article by Gijsbert Oonk, founding director of the Sport and Nation network
Lecture by Gijsbert Oonk: The FIFA World Cup: Football, Citizenship, and National Identity 1930-2022
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.