Sunday, July 4, 2010

World Cup stars playing for their country even if that's not their country...


One of the great attractions about the World Cup has always been its competition at an international level. This immediately makes it more epic than any club competition because of the tournament’s sheer scale. It unites entire countries in a singular cause like few other peaceful means (famously halting a civil war in the Ivory Coast before the 2006 tournament).

Yet, for all the notions about “country versus country” and the millions of people who reside in each of the qualifying countries, why is it that so many players end up on the roster of countries they weren’t born in?

Seriously, scores of countries in the World Cup this year (as in others before) field players who were not born within the borders of the nation they represent. Miroslav Klose, Deco, Marcos Tulio Tanaka, Pepe and Benny Fielhaber are but a few examples in a sea of players who’ve plied their trade for a foreign country in South Africa.

Players are allowed to do this via a number of possibilities. If, for example, they have dual citizenship through their parents, then they can choose. Zinedine Zidane had this fork in the road, choosing France with amazing results (unless you’re Algerian).

No matter the means of doing this, it is a fascinating historical trend that has impacted nearly every World Cup in one way or another. Even in 1934 (the second ever World Cup), Italy emerged victorious on home soil largely due to the services of three Argentineans (one of them even scored a goal in the Final.)

What I sometimes wonder is what would happen if FIFA suddenly instituted new rules outlawing all of this. I mean, what if every player could only play from the country he was born in? I’ll bypass the argument over whether this would be fair (because in some cases, it certainly wouldn’t) and focus on what the consequences of this would be.

Firstly, as an American, I would have found this rule awesome, attributed completely to the fact that Giuseppe Rossi, born in New Jersey, would not have been able to skip Team USA for Italy (where he hilariously didn’t make the final roster).

Probably the most interesting byproduct would be in the case of Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentinean star, who powered Diego Maradona’s team to its fateful run to the quarterfinals, was actually born in Brest, France.

Had he played for France, how different things might have been. The prolific Real Madrid man scored several goals (go-ahead goals against both South Korea and Mexico) along with excellent link-up play with Carlos Tevez and Leo Messi (Germany game aside.)

In other words, he’s the exact thing France was missing.

Perhaps no one man could’ve salvaged the Titanic wreck that was the French national team, but the hole he would have left in Maradona’s lineup could have sealed the South American’s fate even faster than when it actually happened.

Yet it was the team that put Argentina to the sword (Germany) who would have the most to lose by a switch in eligibility rules. The aforementioned Klose (who is currently tied for second in all-time World Cup goals) is just one example.

Even though other countries have more foreigners (Algeria have an ungodly 17 French born players on their roster), no other foreigners matter so much to the country they’re pulling a Benedict Arnold for.

Klose and Lukas Podolski (more than the other non-German born players on Die Mannschaft’s roster) have been crucial for Germany. Each has contributed goals and a rugged defensiveness to what many considered before the tournament to be a vulnerable German side.

Again, speculation as to “what would have been” provides no true answers, but one undeniable is that things would have been different. And the argument that Germany would have a better team without the two Polish born forwards isn’t a very convincing one.

That said, the rule would have given the Germans back Kevin-Prince Boateng, one of the midfielders of the tournament.

I don’t think FIFA will adopt any restrictive citizen laws (since we can’t even get replays), but it is nonetheless an interesting line of thought. Just ask Leo Beenhakker, the Polish coach who was fired after not qualifying for South Africa.

Because, unequivocally, I’m sure he would’ve loved to have had both Klose and Podolski.

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