Switching nationalities like Diego Costa did should reflect spirit of international football
When Italy play Bulgaria and England this international break, you may see two guys you would not have thought of as Italian until recently: Palermo's Franco Vazquez and Sampdoria's Eder.
You would have been wrong, of course, because both have Italian passports. Vazquez is from Cordoba, Argentina, but his mother was born in Italy and is Italian; his paternal grandmother is also Italian. Eder is Brazilian; you may remember his dad as the guy (also named Eder) with the cannonball strike who played for Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. He has an Italian great-grandparent, moved to Italy at 16, back in January 2005 and was duly naturalized.
There is no question that both are legally eligible to play for Italy. But should they? Inter coach Roberto Mancini doesn't think so: "I think to play for a country, you need to have been born there."
Cue debate and backlash. A bit like we've seen elsewhere most notably in the past year in Spain with the Brazilian-born Diego Costa and in the U.S. with Jurgen Klinsmann's German-Americans (Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks et al). It raises the question of identity and what it means to feel allegiance to a nation. And that's a subject that sparks debate.
Mancini using birthplace to determine nationality was inappropriate.
For a start, in most countries (the U.S. being a notable exception) being born there does not automatically confer citizenship. What's more, by that logic somebody like Bayern Munich's Thiago Alcantara ought to be playing for Italy. Yet he was born there simply because his dad, Mazinho, was playing for Lecce at the time. Neither of his parents are Italian or have Italian ancestry; he moved away shortly after his first birthday and grew up shuttling back and forth between Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro. And that's why he plays for Spain, although nobody (I think) would have had an issue if he'd played for Brazil.
FIFA have amended the rules of eligibility over time. You can read them in detail here but in a nutshell you can play for a country whose citizenship you hold, provided you meet some basic conditions: either you, one of your parents or one of your grandparents were born there or you lived there continuously for at least two years and you have not already played in official competition (including youth tournaments) for another nation.
That's the general rule, but there is an exception. You can play for another nation (provided you fulfill the other criteria) even if you've already appeared in official competition as long as it wasn't for the full national team and you already had dual citizenship when you made those appearances. That's how Diego Costa was able to play for Spain after turning out twice for Brazil in friendlies.
Which brings us to identity and what playing for a national team means. For people of dual citizenship, I don't think it's a zero-sum game. You can legitimately feel 100 percent, say, French and 100 percent Algerian. It's a personal sense, and I don't think anyone ought to be able to tell you otherwise.
Yet there are two other, obvious, problems here. Ones to which there is no easy answer.
The first is naturalization of convenience. Fortunately football isn't handball, so you won't get situations like Qatar becoming a power in team handball overnight. We have, as we've seen, much tougher rules. Yet you will still get situations in which a guy appears to select another country out of sheer convenience. Did Mauro Camoranesi play for Italy in the 2006 World Cup because he felt Italian or because he knew he wasn't going to get a shot with Argentina? I'm not a mind-reader, but my guess is the latter.
And what about the English Football Association's pursuit of Adnan Januzaj? Born and raised in Brussels of Kosovar-Albanian descent, he turned down the Belgian national team until his 19th birthday in the hopes that Kosovo would get FIFA recognition. During the three years from the time he moved to Manchester United and his debut for Belgium, the FA seriously considered persuading him to hold out and play for England. He would have had to not play international football until March 2016, after which he could have been naturalized and played for England. Januzaj, of course, said no, but it would have been perfectly legal and probably more lucrative.
The other issue is one France and Germany have faced in the past, but others could soon be dealing with: children of immigrants who come through the system, benefit from the time and money clubs and FAs spend on them, and then go off to play for the country of their ancestry. In Germany, the likes of Yildiray Basturk, Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop opted to play for Turkey, despite being born and raised in Germany.
Four years ago, executives at the French FA were caught on tape discussing a quota system capping the percentage of players of African heritage at their federal training centers like the fabled Clairefontaine academy. Their argument was motivated by the fact that the French FA was spending plenty to educate and train guys who would then go off to play for other nations: players like Moussa Sow (Senegal), Freddy Kanoute (Mali), Mehdi Benatia (Morocco) or Hassan Yebda (Algeria). But you wonder why you would use ethnicity -- rather than whether the player has dual citizenship -- as a deciding factor.
What to do in those cases? There's no correct answer. You can no more expect a youth international to know what the future will hold than you can look into someone's heart and determine whether they "feel" a national identity or are simply exploiting commercial opportunities.
Playing international football is a privilege, not a right. Your national team should be an expression of your nation, however you choose to define it. And immigration patterns being what they are, it can be defined different ways.
The best you can hope for is that rather than simply making selections based on eligibility and on who would make their team better, FAs take a moment to realize what a national team means to them. Maybe they'll look at a player and ask themselves whether, culturally, he's "one of them," or, at least, wants to be one of them for reasons other than personal profit.
There's only so much here that can be solved via FIFA regulations. Self-regulation -- - trusting nations to use common sense and resisting the urge to call upon those whose eligibility fits the letter of the law but not the spirit of international football -- is our best hope, however unlikely that may be.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.