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FIFA proposes national team eligibility changes

FIFA is seeking to rewrite the rules about who is eligible for national teams, and some of the changes could affect the cap-tie rules.

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FIFA has announced their schedule for the 70th FIFA Conference, which is to be hosted (remotely) in Zurich, Switzerland on September 18th. As part of that conference, FIFA is set to review a set of proposals for amendments on the rules regarding national team eligibility (you can find the current rules here). Many of the proposed changes are merely superficial: simplified text, pluralizations, changes to pronouns to reflect the fact that women play the sport. However, there are some big changes, some of which may affect the United States.

The first big change is in eligibility for naturalized minors. Under the old rules, players who were naturalized had to reside in their adopted nation for at least five years after they turned 21. You may remember the case of Gedion Zelalem, an American U-23 player. Zelalem had Ethiopian nationality through his ancestry and German nationality through his birthplace. However, as a child, Zelalem and his father moved to Washington DC, where he predominantly developed as a player. Zelalem was able to eventually receive his American citizenship through his father, who naturalized before Gedion turned 18, allowing him to become eligible for the United States national team. However, FIFA rules at the time blocked the national team change because Zelalem, who at the time was with the Arsenal reserves in London, had not yet resided in the US for 5 years after his 21st birthday, even though he had not yet turned 21. Zelalem’s case was decided upon an appeal from USSF, but the proposed rule changes will prevent such a scenario from happening again. Here’s the break down:

  1. For individuals who moved to their adopted nation before the age of 9, they must reside in that country for at least 3 years.
  2. For those above the age of 10 but below 18, it’s 5 years, so long as they did not move for the purpose of playing for that national team.
  3. For those who move after the age of 18, it’s 5 years.

With how many immigrants come to the United States, and with how specifically important immigrant communities are to America soccer programs, it is doubtless that this rule change will be relevant for many players going forward.

The second change is a bit less relevant for the U.S. national teams. The current rules do not state the eligibility of stateless individuals. A stateless person is someone who does not hold nationality for any nation due to having their citizenship stripped away or relinquished through unusual circumstances. For obvious reasons, many stateless people are refugees, sometimes living in nations where it is impossible for them to become citizens through the normal legal system. The proposed rules allow these stateless people who do not have the ability to gain citizenship to become eligible to play for the country where they reside so long as they have lived there at least 5 years.

It might seem like this is a remote issue, but statelessness affects millions of people around the world. A member of the French squad for the 2014 World Cup, Rio Mavuba, was born stateless, though he was able to receive his French citizenship as a young adult. However, while statelessness is a major and devastating issue for those it affects, it’s not likely to be relevant for the American national teams. While there is a small stateless population in the U.S. and significant holes blocking those people from being able to receive citizenship, American laws granting citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil (unlike most countries) prevent statelessness from being perpetuated across generations, and thus helps prevent the growth of statelessness in the country.

The third rule change worth noting has to do with players who want to change their nationality after being locked in. Under the current rules, it is very easy for federations to lock players into playing for only that nation, a process commonly referred to as cap-tying. The proposed changes ease some of the restrictions on cap-tied players.

Under the current rules, a player who has made an appearance at a youth level tournament or in a friendly at the senior level can make a one-time switch to represent a different nation. Players who have appeared in competitive senior matches (World Cup qualifying, the World Cup, the Gold Cup, etc.) are cap-tied to that nation and were not eligible for the one-time switch. So, for example, Jermaine Jones had appeared only in friendly matches for Germany and was thus eligible to switch to the United States. However, he could not switch back.

Under the proposed rule changes, until a player appears in a World Cup or continental tournament (European Championships, Copa America, Gold Cup, etc.), they would be able to make their switch. Further, if a player makes a switch but does not appear for their new federation, they have the option to switch back. This means that players are not cap-tied by playing in qualifying matches, nor by merely filling out the paperwork to switch to the United States. They have to actually appear in a World Cup or Gold Cup match.

Finally, there are changes that let players switch if all their caps came before they turned 21. If a player has no more than 3 senior caps, even if those matches are from a World Cup, all before they turn 21, they may be allowed to switch to a different federation after a period of 3 years without a cap.*

In addition, players who have appeared in friendlies (or qualifiers) before the age of 21 who then are naturalized to a new nation are allowed to switch federations to that nation.

So, what does that mean for the U.S.? Well, it means that teenagers will have more flexibility to change their federations.

To help explain the first teenager change, let’s call it the Sergiño Dest Rule. Sergiño Dest has 3 appearances for the United States, and was previously eligible for the Dutch national team. However, as Dest has not appeared at a World Cup or a Gold Cup, and is under the age of 21, he would not yet be considered cap-tied under the proposed rules. If he does not play again for another 3 years, Dest would be eligible to switch to the Netherlands national team (don’t worry, the odds of this happening are extremely remote).

To help explain the second teenager change, let’s call it the Diego Fagundez Rule. Diego Fagundez is a player for the New England Revolution who once mulled appearing for the USMNT. However, Fagundez did not have American citizenship. When he appeared for the Uruguayan U-20 team, he made himself ineligible for the USMNT if he ever received his American citizenship because FIFA rules required that you had to have eligibility of both nations at the time of the first official appearance at any age level. However, if Fagundez were to become an American citizen, he would become eligible for the USMNT under the proposed rule changes because the rules allow a switch if a player becomes nationalized as long as the games happened before they turned 21. (I don’t think Fagundez is currently good enough for the USMNT, so you probably don’t need to worry about this either.)

* A previous version of this article misstated the level of competition for one of the rules for teenagers changing the national team they represent.

So the rule changes are pretty narrow and specific, but they could have some big implications for prospective American players, especially for teenagers. What do you think? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.