U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati confirmed that Zelalem had received clearance from FIFA. Moments later, the federation released a finalized U-20 World Cup that included Zelalem.
FIFA rules state that any naturalized citizen must live in the country for five years after the age of 18 to be able to play for their national team. Zelalem is a naturalized citizen and only just turned 18 so he wouldn't qualify. But the FIFA rule's intent is to keep players from moving to a country and getting citizenship just to play for their national team. Zelalem moved to the U.S. as a kid, long before he was a soccer prospect and in no way violates the spirit of the rule. Because of that, the U.S. asked FIFA to make him eligible for the American side immediately, which they have now agreed to.
Zelalem is one of the top prospects in the Arsenal academy, starring for their youth teams and training with their first team regularly. He made his first appearance in a real match for the Arsenal first team in January 2014, at just 16 years old. That was the only match he played for the first team that season, and he has made just one appearance for the first time this season, coming off the bench in a Champions League match. He is expected to be given an opportunity to win a permanent first team place in Arsenal's preseason this summer, having played so well for their youth teams, and it's also possible that he goes on loan to a Championship or bottom half Premier League team.
The midfielder has drawn huge praise for his creativity and skill on the ball, which will be a welcome addition to the U.S. Jurgen Klinsmann has been craving a player like him and, while he is still a bit off from making a big impact with the U.S. senior team, he will be the star of the U-20 team immediately. He could also make the jump to the U-23 team, helping them qualify for next summer's Olympics.
Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, but moved to the U.S. when he was nine years old. It was there, in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., that he was spotted by an Arsenal scout and asked to join the team's academy. He did so, and rocketed up their ranks. With his game growing and his potential clear, Germany called him in to play for their U-15, U-16 and U-17 national teams. At the time, he wasn't eligible for the U.S. because he wasn't a citizen, but he received citizenship just before his 18th birthday, allowing him to play for the Americans.
The teenager still had a choice to make. He could have played for Germany if he wanted, or even Ethiopia, but according to several reports, he considers himself an American, owing to his formative years in the country. Zelalem told U.S. Soccer that he wanted to play for them and he was on track for the American team. He just needed FIFA approval, which he now has.