Citizenship vs. Identity: What a Passport or Football Jersey Can and Cannot Show


In both a recent CIRS blog post and public talk, Gijsbert Oonk discussed the ways citizenship status impacts the eligibility of players to represent states in international sports tournaments. The “rules” in these cases are twofold. First, every country enjoys a sovereign prerogative to determine how it recognizes and accords citizenship. Second, sports organizations such as FIFA and the IOC have established criteria to regulate who may represent which country at their events.

But these outwardly official rules obscure a number of realities. Sometimes, the two sets conflict. Heartbreakingly, people fall between the cracks entirely. Commonly, a simple glance at someone’s passport, or noting where they happened to be born—which, by the way, is a giant, cosmic fluke—reveals very little about who they truly are. Put simply, identity is far more complex.

Historically, family, religion, language, occupation, and social status are all much more important than where one was born or spent much of one’s life. My great-grandfather was a German-speaking Roman Catholic with a Hungarian name. He came from a town that was predominantly Slavic and Orthodox Christian in what is now Serbia near the border with Romania but was then a multinational empire. Luckily for my family, he emigrated to Canada right before European states undertook a massive program to eliminate those various forms of identity or, disastrously, the people who harbored them.

The political world is now organized around discrete nation-states and our membership in one of these (or sometimes a few, or none at all) is perhaps our most important identities. Those other parts of our character still exist and intersect. But citizenship regularly trumps them all. Citizenship determines which passport you carry, whether it is strong or weak, and also which jersey you may wear to play at the World Cup. 

Adding to the intricacies of citizenship and identity is the fact that the little booklets we carry often do not reflect our lived experience very well. I was born in Canada and possess a Canadian passport, but I have lived outside that country for almost my entire adult life. So what about us “foreigners” or “migrants” or “expats”? Am I a “citizen of the world” or, as Theresa May derisively called me, a “citizen of nowhere”?

And not all foreigners are treated equally. Reading the world news constantly reminds us of this sad fact, as all the various aspects of identity intersect to determine whether someone is welcomed or vilified, and every other reaction in between. The very language we use to designate different types of foreigners is loaded. A friend of mine recently told me about his varying experiences when traveling to the United States. He is a white, male, highly qualified medical professional who holds dual citizenship. When he arrives using his Australian passport, he is practically celebrated. When he enters on his South African passport, people are suspicious. Same foreigner, different experience.  

The legacy of empire, racism, colossal wealth disparities, and economic inequality have even more pronounced consequences than my friend’s slight discomfort—determining who can go where in the world today, why, and how easily. Some of this is reflected in one’s passport, or which country one may represent in sport. But so much more is occluded by focusing on citizenship and sports’ simple rules. 

Article by Eddie Kolla, Associate Professor at Georgetown University-Qatar.

Eddie Kolla teaches history at Georgetown in Qatar and is currently the 2020–2021 CIRS Faculty Fellow.

Lecture by Eddie Kolla: The Amazingly Idiosyncratic History of Passports

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.

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