Should soccer take loyalty lessons from the Olympics?

It’s been a week, so hopefully everyone has had sufficient time to come down off the nationalistic high produced by the thrilling conclusion to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Say what you will about the scenes of nationwide bedlam sparked by “a bit of rubber cross[ing] a red line on a patch of ice somewhere in Vancouver”, but the reality is that international sporting events have a way of drumming up excitement and passion in a citizenry that few other events can match. Behold the normally meek Canadian populace, ostentatiously displaying their flag and crooning their anthem, to mark the occasion of some athletes they’ve never met accomplishing this feat or that.

The athletes themselves are no exception, posing for various photo-ops invariably clutching some incarnation of the red maple leaf, all of them surely proud to be representing Canada and feeling supremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do so. One Canadian medalist who may have been feeling particularly upbeat about his decision to represent Canada was bobsledder Lascelles Brown, who won bronze in the four-man bobsleigh event.

Brown was born in Jamaica and moved to Canada in the mid-2000’s. He applied for citizenship in July 2005 and received it — by special exception — just prior to the 2006 Games, in which he won a silver medal for us in the two-man event. Now, as a soccer fan, you may be forgiven for thinking that Brown moved to Canada just to give himself a chance at competing in the Olympics. The truth is, he’d already been to the Olympics, in 2002, representing Jamaica. That’s right; so long as all the proper I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, athletes may freely compete for multiple nations throughout the course of their Olympic career.

Brown’s case is by no means isolated, of course. Recall boxer Lennox Lewis — born in West Ham, moved to Toronto at age 12 and won gold for us in the 1988 Olympics before moving back across the pond and flying the Union Jack for the remainder of his pugilistic days. Evidently he’d always considered himself British… gee, where have we heard that one before?

Soccer, of course, has a complex and constantly-shifting set of rules and regulations regarding what country a player can represent, based on whether they’ve represented another country at a certain level or in a certain competition. Canadian fans have been made furious by the decisions, in recent years, of players such as Owen Hargreaves (England), Jonathan de Guzman (Holland) and Asmir Begovic (Bosnia) to represent other countries despite their Canadian backgrounds and seemingly-apparent willingness to play for Les Rouges in their international careers.

The frustration is magnified by the reality that once they’ve been “cap-tied” to that nation (as Hargreaves and Begovic have, but de Guzman hasn’t) by playing a game for the senior men’s national team in a FIFA competition, they can never again play for Canada. Begovic, for instance, was put on the field for the final two minutes of a World Cup qualifying match for Bosnia; a match the Bosnians had already wrapped up. The move was seen by most as a cynical move by the Bosnian coach to eliminate any possibility of Begovic flipping back to Canada in case he didn’t catch on with the Bosnian team.

Cynical or not, it’s worked. That coach could come out tomorrow and say he never again intends to select Begovic to the team. Begovic could have a complete change of heart and offer a tearful, heartfelt apology to Canada and its fans for turning his back. Canadian fans could (just go with me for a second) believe it, and accept him back with open arms. But, too bad. He’s gone for good.

Should that change? Should soccer do away with the whole business of “cap-tying” and just allow players to compete for whatever country they choose, at whatever point in their career, so long as their paperwork is in order?

The loudest argument against this arrangement is that it encourages a mercenary mindset, in which players merely vie to compete for the nation which can offer them the best shot at World Cup success, without any concerns for legitimate patriotic feelings. But really, isn’t that already the case? And if this is such a concern, then why don’t we see Olympic athletes shifting allegiances on a more frequent basis?

Besides, each country only has so many roster spots. Brazil won’t suddenly expand its bench to 450,000 seats, just because there are that many players who want to suit up for them. Hell, Brazil has too many players with top-notch skills — note their futbol diaspora, wherein Roger Guerreiro is now “Polish” and Eduardo da Silva is now “Croatian”. Folks who are surely supremely talented footballers, but whose chance at catching on with a national team could only come with a relatively soccer minnow.

Remind you of anyone? A guy like Tomasz Radzinski, perhaps? A warrior for the Canadian men’s national team, to be sure, and one of the proudest wavers of the maple leaf out on the pitch. But had he caught the eye of his native Poland as a youngster, would he have made a different decision? What about Iain Hume? Mike Klukowski? Simeon Jackson? Et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, it’s viscerally satisfying (believe me) to whip ourselves up into a lather of abject fury when players spurn Canada to play elsewhere, and to act as if we are pure victims in the matter of international allegiance-switching, as if we’ve never benefited from someone choosing us over another option. As the Asmir Begovic saga unfolded last year, it was interesting to see the online comments from Canadian and Bosnian fans; while some Bosnians adopted the predictable “nah nah nah nah boo boo, we’ve got him, you don’t” approach (as some Canadians surely would, if the roles were reversed), some also expressed empathy, noting that many quality players of Bosnian descent had been poached by other nations.

And that’s the realty. There is a very small group of nations (i.e. Brazil) with such a glut of talent that they can afford to export it, while the rest of the world is comprised of players who must balance their individual ideas of national and cultural identity (itself a supremely gray area) with the demands of their personal lives and their natural aspirations as professional footballers.

Would opening up soccer, a la the Olympics, help alleviate some of this untenable pressure? It would have the same effect as the cap-tying rule changes made by FIFA last year. Those changes were made to prevent European countries from cap-tying young African players (who were in the academies of Euro clubs) without any intend to ever use them on the national side. Under the new rules, playing for a country’s youth side doesn’t disqualify you from playing for another nation’s senior side.

The Olympic rule would take it one step further: if you’re a young Ghanaian playing for Arsenal’s reserve side, England could trot you out for the national team to see how you click. And if you don’t, you can go back and play for Ghana. If you’re Julian de Guzman or Asmir Begovic and find out you’re not clicking with the national side of Holland or Bosnia, you could go back and play for Canada (presuming, of course, that we’d accept them back). If you’re Tomasz Radzinski and you’d like to have a final run-out wearing the kit of your native Poland (hypothetically), just to see how it felt, you could.

All that the rule change would do is officially entrench what we all already know to be true: while fans would like to impose their unflinching, binary interpretations of national representation (you’re one of us, you’re always one of us, otherwise you’re one of them and you’re bad) onto living, breathing human beings with their own needs and desires, the reality is that players will always make what they believe to be the best choices for themselves, given the circumstances presented to them.

Mightn’t it be worth considering giving those players a chance to amend those choices, should their circumstances change?

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3 Responses to “Should soccer take loyalty lessons from the Olympics?”

  1. Kevin Smith Says:

    I completely agree, now that I think about it. I was about to mention the mercenary thing, and how we’d have entire teams of Brazilians playing for another country…but we could have that now, and we don’t, so why would it be different if the rules were relaxed?

  2. But Olympic athletes are much more reliant upon their country of choice than international soccer players. That country provides them with all or nearly all of their training funding. The relationships they build with the media and sponsors provide the bulk of their exposure and put food on the table. Because they’re training with a given country’s program, they’re usually living in that country, which doesn’t hurt the ol’ loyalty.

    Suffice to say that absolutely none of those things are true for any soccer player who’s come further in life than Generation Adidas.

  3. Kevin Smith Says:

    Actually, that’s not entirely true Lord Bob. One of the many criticisms given to the Own the Podium program was that it prevented Canadians training with the best from other nations. I believe one of the medallists in downhill skiing trains in Canada with some Canadians, a Norwegian I think. The Chinese women’s curling team trains in Edmonton. 4 of the top figure skating pairs (might have been ice dance pair, it’s all the same to me) trained in 2 facilities, both in the US. Those pairs were 2 Yanks, 1 Canadian, and 1…uhhh…I think it was Russian…

    Olympic athletes generally train wherever they can get the best training (presumably combined with the best personal life). I’m guessing that the winter athletes from Albania, Algeria, Bermuda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, and Senegal don’t train in their own countries. Mainly because all of them were skiiers of some kind (generally cross country or alpine, few of the freestyle or biathlons if I remember right) and those countries generally don’t get much snow.

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