Sports Opinion

A nation to nation debacle

June 19 -25, 2019

Gulf Weekly A nation to nation debacle

Sport never stops. For many amateur players their preferred game will take a seasonal break, but for those who love to watch, there is always something on, always a score to check, highlights to watch and opinions to express.

The summer period is often a time for some of the biggest sporting events, namely World Cups and the Olympics and over the last week we’ve been able to feast our eyes on both the cricket and women’s football fiestas.

The biggest sporting events attract the biggest viewing figures. Personally, I want to see the best versus the best – athletes performing at the peak of their powers competing against each other on the biggest stage.

Mo Farah has won many races, he has probably tripped over in many too, but as a viewer I will always remember his tumble in Rio, to do it on that stage against elite runners, to get back up and still win, it almost had a kind of magic to it.

For athletes too, representing a nation in a sports biggest event is the pinnacle of their careers and fulfilling a childhood dream.

So why do we routinely deny elite athletes the chance to perform on the biggest stage with overly strict registration rules?

One full international appearance, for example, and that’s it, you can’t represent anyone else.

Last year, in my role as a Juventus Bahrain Academy coach, I was fortunate enough to meet Estelle Johnson, a professional footballer in the US.

We talked about her career and her highlights. She was extremely grateful for the opportunities football had given her but she didn’t hide there was one thing she still wanted ... the chance of appearing on the international stage. Specifically, it would be a dream to make a World Cup appearance.

Fast forward 12 months, I see her again, this time on TV donning a Cameroon shirt for their opening World Cup fixture. 

I then thought back to another point of our conversation. Estelle came close to the US squad on a few occasions. I imagined an alternate reality where 10 years prior, an injury-hit US national team coach puts young Estelle on for the final 15 minutes of a qualifier against Aruba and that is all that her international career amounts to.

Cameroon would miss out on a player that would have improved their squad. Estelle would miss out on playing at a World Cup and both the viewers and the tournament would therefore miss out on seeing Cameroon at her best.

The absurdity of this goes even deeper.

Denmark, Hong Kong and Peru are just three of the 25 different foreign countries English cricketers have been born in. If you’re interested in knowing the others a quick internet search will provide you with the answers. In fact, current England captain Eoin Morgan is an Irishman by birth and there are no issues with him representing England, nor should there be.

If England were to deselect him though, why should there be an issue with him playing for Ireland?

If he was suddenly not good enough for England it would not affect their team selection but would, however, potentially raise the standard for Ireland and, therefore, the standard of competition overall.

The current system forces teenagers to make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their career, with no real way of being able to predict the hurdles they may face. It also allows the biggest and the best nations at the time to hoard young talent, weakening other nations who could have otherwise utilised their abilities, if not now, at a later date.

For Sevilla FC forward, Munir El Haddadi, this is his reality. Aged 18 and a 13-minute cameo appearance against Macedonia for Spain in 2014 means that his international career is almost certainly over at the tender age of 22.

Had he not played, he would also be eligible for Morocco and would almost certainly have been a starter for them in the 2018 World Cup.

He appealed to FIFA and the footballing body rejected the plea. He appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which upheld FIFA’s ruling.

Who does this benefit? It isn’t Morocco, it isn’t Munir, it isn’t the fan in the stadium or the TV viewer, or the competition itself. Vincente Del Bosque, Spain’s manager at the time, even said that he is ‘sorry’ and feels responsible for the situation.

As an amateur in my seasonal break I look at this and think to myself; why don’t they do what we do?

Every year, we effectively become free agents, re-registering for our teams or finding new ones, as long as we are eligible to play, we can sign the form and be good to go.

At the start of every international tournament cycle be it the Olympics or World Cup, athletes could register with whichever eligible nation they choose, free agents can be added at any point and you can have as many athletes registered as you want.

From the start of qualifying to the end of the tournament you can only register with one nation. An athlete will likely get perhaps three or four chances during their career to be a part of the biggest sporting event. So, like in the unfortunate case of Munir, no athlete would miss out on a whole international career due to a 13 minutes appearance as a teen.

Prior to the start of every qualifying would be the international transfer window.

I understand that my solution may appear overly simplistic but with so many great minds (and so many more great bank accounts) in sport, surely there has to be a better way.

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