Gedion Zelalem is currently ineligible to play for the United States. That is despite being an American citizen and not being cap-tied to any other country. Why?
Zelalem does not fulfill the requirements set out by FIFA for players who have acquired nationality and were not born with it. The rule states that Zelalem must fulfill one of the following:
a) He was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
b) His biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of
the relevant Association;
c) His grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the
d) He has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of
18 on the territory of the relevant Association.
Zelalem was born in Germany, not the U.S. His parents were born in Ethiopia, as were his grandparents. And while Zelalem moved to the U.S. when he was nine years old, fulfilling the requirement to live in the country for five continuous years, that was before he turned 18 years old. He only turned 18 this week.
So, if FIFA were to follow the rules to the letter of the law, Zelalem would not be eligible for the U.S. until he turned 23 years old, but the good news is FIFA doesn't always do that. FIFA accepts appeals for exceptions to their rules in instances when players meet the spirit of the rules, and players have been successful in their appeals.
The rule is in place to keep countries from offering citizenship to players from other nations just because they are good at soccer. That is the spirit of the law, and Zelalem certainly doesn't violate the spirit of the law.
When Zelalem moved to the U.S., he wasn't a serious prospect. He was a nine-year-old moving to the country with his father, and it was years later that Arsenal spotted him and brought him into their academy. Zelalem is an American because his father moved to the U.S. with him and he grew up in the country, going to American schools and becoming part of his Maryland community, not because he is good at a sport.
Because of that, U.S. Soccer expects FIFA to grant their request for an exemption for Zelalem, allowing him to play for the Americans now.
"We're going through the FIFA process and hope to have Gedion eligible by March or April," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told ESPN FC. "We don't expect any issues."
For a while, there was debate about whether Zelalem would choose to play for the U.S. or Germany. Then there was concern about whether he would get his citizenship before his 18th birthday. But he did pick the U.S., he did his his citizenship and he is, in every sense of the word, American. Now he just needs FIFA to see the obvious and sign off so he can put on the U.S. shirt.