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England National Football Team Player Eligibility


The concept of national team eligibility continues to elude some fans. Take this exchange, for example, on TalkSPORT's Scottish phone-in when goalkeeper Antii Niemi still played for Hearts (borrowed from Jason Burt's 'The Sweeper' column in The Independent, 1 January 2003):

 'Caller: I'm a Hearts fan and, fair enough, Stephen Pressley gets a game for Scotland but what I can't understand is why [national coach Berti] Vogts never picks Antii Niemi.

 'Host (former footballer Arthur Albiston): Eh? Sorry?

 'Caller: Why does he never pick Antii Niemi for Scotland?

 'Host: It's because he's Finnish.

 'Caller: What? 

'Host: Antii Niemi is Finnish.

 'By now enraged caller: He's not Finnish! He's only 28!' 

Several famous footballers played for more than one national team in the old days. Italy's World Cup-winning sides of the 1930's featured the so-called oriundi, South American players who had played for the national team of their native land but whose Italian ancestry also made them eligible to play for the azzurri. Later, in the 1940's and 1950's, Alfredo Di Stefano, indisputably one of the two or three greatest players of the century, played for three national sides'his native Argentina, Colombia after his move to the renegade league in that country and Spain after he joined Real Madrid, although the Colombia matches were deemed unofficial because the Colombian association was on the outs with FIFA. Di Stefano's Real Madrid teammate, Ferenc Puskas, starred for his native Hungary in the 1940's and 1950's and then went on to play for Spain in the early 1960's after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1957 led to his exile from his homeland. And Ladislao Kubala, a forward of wonderful skills voted the greatest player in FC Barcelona's history in 1999, appeared for three national sides from the late 1940's to the early 1960's, Czechoslovakia, his native Hungary and Spain.

We've posted a list of the four England players who have appeared for other national sides in official international matches elsewhere on this website. The list also includes four other England players who made appearances for national selections in unofficial matches. 

In the early 1960's, at the 33rd FIFA Congress in Santiago, Chile, in 1962, to be precise (thank you, Nathan de Sousa Malafaia), FIFA put an end to this era of relatively free country-swapping. It enacted what became Article 18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of Statutes. Article 18, which has itself been replaced effective 1 January 2004, provided: 

1. Any player who is a naturalised citizen of a country in virtue of that country's laws shall be eligible to play for a national or representative team of that country.

2. If a player has been included in a national or representative team of a country for which he is eligible to play pursuant to 1, he shall not be permitted to take part in an international match for another country. Accordingly, any player who is qualified to play for more than one national association (i.e. who has dual nationality) will be deemed to have committed himself to one association only when he plays his first international match in an official competition (at any level) for that association. 

 3. The only players exempt from this provision are those whose nationality has been changed not voluntarily but as the result of an international decree either granting independence to a region or ceding part of one country to another.'

Two things are noteworthy here. First, FIFA leaves the question of naturalisation to the laws of its member nations.  If the player is deemed a citizen under a particular country's laws, he is eligible to play for that country's national side. FIFA does not care if a nation grants citizenship on the basis of parentage regardless of place of birth. Nor does it care if a country refuses to grant citizenship on the basis of parentage alone. To that extent, then, eligibility for a country's national team is left up to the naturalisation laws of the particular country. Second, the custom has been to regard "official competition" as excluding friendly matches even though all games between the senior teams of two countries are regarded as official matches and certainly constitute competition.  But once a player has participated in a competitive match as so defined for one national team, he is not free to play for another national side in the absence of the special circumstances set forth in section 3, which was designed to cover situations like the breakup of the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. 

FIFA made a wholesale revision of its statutes and regulations at its Extraordinary Congress on 19 October 2003.  It rewrote the entire article on "Eligibility to play for Association teams," renumbered it and provided a procedure for players to change their national team affiliation. Article 15 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes, which took effect on 1 January 2004, now reads:

"1. Any person holding the nationality of a country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the Association of his country. The Executive Committee shall decide on the conditions of eligibility for any Player whose nationality entitles him to represent more than one Association.

"2. As a general rule, any Player who has already represented one Association (either in full or in part) in an official competition of any category may not play an international match with another Association team.

"3. If a Player has more than one nationality, or if a Player acquires a new nationality, or if the Player is eligible to play for several Association teams due to his nationality, the following exceptions apply:

"(a) Up to his 21st birthday, a player may only once request changing the Association for which he is eligible to play international matches. A Player may exercise this right to change Associations only if he has not played at 'A' international level for his current Association and if, at the time of his first full or partial appearance in an international match in an official competition of any other category, he already had such nationalities. Changing Associations is not permitted during the preliminary competition of a FIFA competition, continental championship or Olympic Tournaments if a player has already been fielded in a match of one of these competitions.

"(b) Any Player who has already acquired eligibility to play for one Association but has another nationality imposed upon him by a government authority, is also entitled to change associations. This provision is not subject to any age limits.

"4. Any Player who wishes to exercise this right to change Associations shall submit a written and substantiated request to the FIFA general secretariat. After submitting the request, the player is no longer qualified to play for his current Association's team. The Players' Status Committee shall decide on the request. The committee's decision may be brought before the Appeal Committee. The Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players contain more detailed provisions.

"5.  Any Players who have already had their 21st birthday at the time of implementation of these provisions and who fulfil the requirements in par. 3 (a) are also entitled to submit such a request to change Associations. This entitlement will expire definitively twelve months after implementation of this provision."

The major substantive change was designed to deal with repeated complaints that players had made irrevocable commitments to a particular national team by taking part in international youth tournaments when they were too young to make an intelligent decision on such an important matter and when their tender age rendered them peculiarly susceptible to pressure from others.  The new provision seeks to rectify this problem by allowing a national team change in limited circumstances. It contains five limitations preventing country-shopping: the player must not yet have reached his 21st birthday when he makes the request to change his national team, he must already hold the dual or multiple nationality when he makes his first appearance in a competitive international match, he must not have appeared for the A or senior level national team of his current association, he may change his national team only once and he may not change his national team during a preliminry competition in which he has taken part. FIFA waived the age limit for making the request for the first year of the new rule's existence, thus allowing players already 21 or older to change national sides during that one-year adjustment period provided they are otherwise eligible to do so.

These general rules apply to all countries, although there is room for differences between countries because national team eligibility depends on nationality or citizenship, which, in turn, hinges on a particular country's own nationality or citizenship laws. 

The national teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are, however, a special case because these four 'home countries' are part of one national state, the United Kingdom. There is no such thing as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish citizenship.  

The associations of these four countries entered an agreement regarding international eligibility in 1993 which provides that a player holding a British passport is eligible to play for the country of his birth, the country of the birth of either of his natural parents or the country of birth of any of his natural grandparents. If the player, his natural parents and his natural grandparents were born outside the U.K., he may play for the home country of his choice. Our understanding is that once a player has played for one of the home countries, even if it is only a friendly match, the 1993 agreement precludes him playing for another home country. The FIFA rule change for players under 21 must be followed in the U.K., however.  Under U.K. law, a player (or anyone, for that matter) who was born abroad becomes eligible for a British passport after five years of lawful residence in the country, and he thus becomes eligible to play for one of the home countries provided he has not played for another national side in official competition. 

It remains to be seen whether the second sentence of paragraph 1 of new Article 15--"The Executive Committee shall decide on the conditions of eligibility for any Player whose nationality entitles him to represent more than one Association"--carries any effect on the U.K. arrangement. Under old Article 18, FIFA left nationality entirely to the laws of its member nations, but the new Article 15 seems to reserve a measure of power in FIFA's Executive Committee where a player's nationality entitles him to play for more than one national side.

The football associations of the home countries have long allowed young players to appear at schoolboy level for the national side of the home country in which they live regardless of whether they would be eligible to play for that country's national side at a higher level and then to switch to another home country's higher level national side provided they are eligible. Ryan Giggs, for example, played for England Schoolboys because he lived in England although he was not eligible to play for England at a higher level. Later he played for Wales' senior side, for which he was eligible through both his own birthplace and family ancestry. And Bob Wilson, the old Arsenal goalkeeper, played for England Schoolboys but later was capped at senior level by Scotland, for which he was eligible through family ancestry although he was born in England and thus could have played for England had he ever been selected.