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Rings around the world

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Germany's Jerome Boateng, righ, and his half-borther Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng challenge for the ball during the group G World Cup soccer match between Germany and Ghana at the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil, Saturday, June 21, 2014. AP Photo

If you were an international footballer, which country would you play for?


For most of us the answer would be fairly obvious—your country of birth. But for some people there are a number of ways we might have ended up playing for other countries.


Back home in London, I have many friends who could have played for the Republic of Ireland because their parents or grandparents are from there. Indeed, when Ireland travelled to Italy for the 1990 World Cup Finals, 13 of their 22-man squad were born in England (two in Scotland, one in Wales and just five in Ireland.)


At Brazil 2014, a staggering 16 of Algeria's players were born in France. Many of them play in the French league but, because of their Algerian ancestry, there is nothing stopping them from choosing to play for either country. 


Sometimes players make the choice based on their affinity with, say, France or Algeria, and play for the country they feel more connection to. But often it is more pragmatic—getting into the French side is difficult so, if a player wants to have the chance of competing at a World Cup, it makes sense to go for the “easier” option.


In recent years England’s cricket team has recruited players from Australia and South Africa who, perhaps, weren’t good enough to make those sides but were welcomed into the England fold. This was a huge departure from the old days when eligibility rules were so strict that counties like Yorkshire required its players to have been born within the borders of the county itself.


In football, FIFA has been liberal with its eligibility laws since the mid-20th century. In the past, players were even allowed to switch national sides. 


Alfredo di Stefano played for Argentina in 1947, Colombia in 1949 and Spain between 1957 and 1961. His Real Madrid teammate Ferenc Puskas also played for Spain after a distinguished career for his native Hungary.


In 2004, FIFA president Sepp Blatter described the looseness of the laws on “naturalised” players as a “farce”. If a player lives and plays in a country for five years or more they are normally eligible for both a passport and a place in the national side of his or her adopted country. Spain’s Diego Costa, Croatia's Eduardo and Italy’s Thiago Motta, for example, are all Brazilian by birth. Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano both hold Spanish passports and could, technically, switch allegiance. 



Speaking to the T&T Guardian via Skype from London, on a day when the World Cup throws up another set of intriguing match ups including Bosnia-Iran and Switzerland-Honduras, Offer says the idea for his ancestry infographic came to him in during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.


“The Australian team has a lot to do with,” he says “Traditionally, football in Australia is a sort of maligned code. You’ve got Australian Rules Football, Rugby League, Rugby Union and Cricket. Football is right down the list. 


“Australia’s equivalent of Bobby Moore, a guy called Johhny Warren, his biography is called Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters. Because, if you played football in Australia in the seventies or eighties, you were basically called a Sheila, a wog or a poofter.”


In Australia, “wog” is a perjorative term for people of Greek or Italian descent. “Sheilas” means girls or women. “Poofters” is a derogatory term for gays.


“The Australian team has always been very multicultural and the project started because there were a lot of new names in the team that I didn’t know—very Croatian and Italian names—and I was interested in where they came from,” he explains.


He cites the famous incident in 2006 when Australia were playing Croatia and referee Howard Webb mistakenly gave a Croat three yellow cards. 


“There were so many Croatian players on the Australian team he basically got their names mixed up. So I looked at the crossover between Australia and Croatia and found it really interesting to look at the ethnic and nationality crossover of other teams and found it was larger than I expected.” 


During our Skype call I play around with the tool while Offer explains some of the interesting cases...


● Any player born in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia, is allowed to play for Bosnia, Serbia or Albania. Because Kosovo only has an Under 21 team, not a full national side. 


● Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj, born in Brussels, is the most “connected:”player in the tournament. His parents’ nationalities make him eligible for Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo. His grandparents make him also eligible for Turkey.


● Switzerland is the most multicultural team, with 21 players who would be eligible to play for other nations.


● Australia’s star, Tim Cahill, played for Samoa at Under-20 level aged just 14 but later said he took that opportunity “simply as a chance to go on holiday because my grandmother was ill at the time in Samoa. It was a chance to go back and see her on expenses as the Samoans were paying for all my flights, accommodation and living expenses. I could not have cared less about playing for them.”


● According to Offer, “A lot of the Nigerian team are pretty much born and bred Cockney Londoners.”


● Meanwhile, Nigeria’s Peter Odemwinghie was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in what was then the USSR. Offer believes the Soviet Union used to encourage countries with socialist governments to send people to USSR outposts for various types of training.


● Players born in the former Yugoslavia are dispersed across Bosnia, Croatia and Australia at Brazil 2014. “If Yugoslavia was still together there would be three sides worth of players,” says Offer.


● Uruguay has plenty of players with Italian ancestry, due to post-WWII migration.


● Meanwhile, Italy is one of the least connected teams in tournament, the obvious exception being Mario Balotelli, whose Ghanaian heritage and sulky demeanour has led right-wing commentatorsin Italy to question his loyalty to the Azzuri.


● In the USA, which has another team descended from migrants, right-wing blogger Ann Coulter wrote a typically provocative piece last week describing America’s newfound fondness for football as a symptom of the “the nation’s moral decay.” She went on to say, “If more ‘Americans’ are watching soccer today, it’s only because of...Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law...No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”


● The Boateng brothers, born in Berlin to the same Ghanaian father, have played against each other in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for different countries. Kevin Prince-Boateng plays for Ghana while younger brother Jerome plays for Germany. In 2010, Germany won 1-0. In 2014 they played out a thrilling 2-2 draw.



Caribbean descendants in Brazil


Tracing the ancestry of the players at the World Cup has been made simpler by Australian web designer James Offer, who has researched the ancestry (parents and grandparents) of every player in the tournament and created a fascinating digital infographic tool. 


The interactive web page allows users to hover over any of the 32 countries competing and see, instantly displayed onscreen, the connections of each team in a neatly designed colour diagram. To the side, specific details of each player's parentage are listed.


For people who thought there was no Caribbean presence at the World Cup, a quick glance at England proves them wrong.


On the eve of the Uruguay match, England’s players held a conference in which 19-year-old attacking midfielder Raheem Sterling spoke about his mum, Nadine, a massive influence on his life and career during his formative years growing up in Maverley in Kingston, Jamaica. The Sterling family lived there until 2002, when young Raheem was eight years old. Nadine Sterling then brought the family to live in Neasden, northwest London, where he grew up with the giant Wembley arch constantly in his sights.


Sterling's path—he now plays for Liverpool in the Premier League—mirrors that of John Barnes, a player also born in Jamaica who moved to England at a young age and ended up an Anfield legend after a spell at a smaller club (Watford in Barnes’ case, QPR for Sterling.) 


Barnes and Sterling both had the choice of playing for Jamaica. Both chose England, but in very different circumstances. 


The toxic racism which greeted Barnes' early appearances in the England shirt has now been consigned to history and Sterling and other black England players express themselves in a different cultural climate.


For England, Daniel Sturridge and Alex Olade-Chamberlain both have Jamaican grandparents. 


In the Dutch side, Nigel De Jong, Jeremain Lens, Georgino Wijnaldum and Michael Vorm all have parents from Suriname. Leroy Fer is from Curacao in the Dutch Antilles. 


Jozy Altidore, the USA striker, has Haitian parentage. In the French team, Loic Remy's father was born in Martinique.


But, alas... there are no Trinis.


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