As the governing body of association football, FIFA is responsible for maintaining and implementing the rules that determine whether an association football player is eligible to represent a particular country in officially recognised international competitions and friendly matches. In the 20th century, FIFA allowed a player to represent any national team, as long as the player held citizenship of that country. In 2004, in reaction to the growing trend towards naturalisation of foreign players in some countries, FIFA implemented a significant new ruling that requires a player to demonstrate a "clear connection" to any country they wish to represent. FIFA has used its authority to overturn results of competitive international matches that feature ineligible players.
FIFA instituted a comprehensive revamp of the eligibility system in January 2021, giving players who might otherwise have been tied to a nationality through junior representation or even full national team caps the ability to switch to another nation.
Historically, it was possible for players to play for different national teams. For example, Alfredo Di Stéfano played for Argentina (1947) and Spain (1957–61).
Di Stefano's Real Madrid teammate Ferenc Puskás also played for Spain after amassing 85 caps for Hungary earlier in his career. A third high-profile instance of a player switching international football nationalities is José Altafini, who played for Brazil in the 1958 FIFA World Cup and for Italy in the subsequent 1962 FIFA World Cup.
Other 20th-century examples of players representing two or three separate countries are:
This does not include the hundreds of players whose teams were affected by changes to geopolitical borders e.g. East Germany/Germany, Soviet Union/Ukraine, Yugoslavia/Croatia.
Furthermore, some international players have played for another FIFA-recognised country in unofficial international matches, i.e. fixtures not recognised by FIFA as full internationals. This category includes:
In January 2004, a new ruling came into effect that permitted a player to represent one country at youth international level and another at senior international level, provided that the player applied before their 21st birthday. The first player to do so was Antar Yahia, who played for the France under-18s before representing Algeria in qualifiers for the 2004 Olympic Games. More recent examples include Sone Aluko, who has caps for the England under-19s and Nigeria, and Andrew Driver, a former England under-21 representative who is committed to the Scotland national team.
In March 2004, FIFA amended its wider policy on international eligibility. This was reported to be in response to a growing trend in some countries, such as Qatar and Togo, to naturalise players born and raised elsewhere who have no apparent ancestral links to their new country of citizenship.
An emergency FIFA committee ruling judged that players must be able to demonstrate a "clear connection" to a country that they had not been born in but wished to represent. This ruling explicitly stated that, in such scenarios, the player must have at least one parent or grandparent who was born in that country, or the player must have been resident in that country for at least two years.
In November 2007, FIFA President Sepp Blatter told the BBC: "If we don't stop this farce, if we don't take care about the invaders from Brazil towards Europe, Asia and Africa then, in the 2014 or the 2018 World Cup, out of the 32 teams you will have 16 full of Brazilian players."
The residency requirement for players lacking birth or ancestral connections with a specific country was extended from two to five years in May 2008 at FIFA's Congress as part of Blatter's efforts to preserve the integrity of competitions involving national teams.
The relevant current FIFA statute, Article 7: Acquisition of a new nationality, states:
Any player who refers to art. 5 par. 1[note 1] to assume a new nationality and who has not played international football [in a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition of any category or any type of football] shall be eligible to play for the new representative team only if he fulfils one of the following conditions:
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 relevant association;
d) He has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association.— FIFA.com
Under the criteria generally, it is possible for a player to have a choice of representing several national teams. It is not uncommon for national team managers and scouts to attempt to persuade players to change their FIFA nationality; in June 2011, for example, Scotland manager Craig Levein confirmed that his colleagues had started a dialogue with United States under-17 international Jack McBean in an attempt to persuade him to represent Scotland in the future. Gareth Bale was asked about a possibility to play for England, being of English descent through his grandmother, but ultimately opted to represent Wales, his country of birth.
In June 2009, FIFA Congress passed a motion that removed the age limit for players who had already played for a country's national team at youth level to change national associations. This ruling features in Article 18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes.
Friendly match appearances do not commit a player to one country; Jermaine Jones played several friendlies for Germany but made his debut for the United States in 2010. Thiago Motta had three caps for Brazil in matches deemed friendlies for Brazil (participation in the CONCACAF Gold Cup as a non-conference guest team) and went on to represent Italy for five years. Diego Costa represented Brazil in two friendlies before switching his allegiances to Spain in 2013, going on to represent the latter at the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups. Apostolos Giannou represented Greece in a friendly in 2015, before switching his allegiances to Australia, making his debut for the latter in March 2016. A FIFA Player's Status Committee is responsible for making such judgements.
Under FIFA rules, eligibility by descent is strictly limited to biological descent; adoption is not considered at all. By contrast, World Rugby, the governing body for rugby union, specifies that if a player has been legally adopted under the laws of the relevant country, descent is traced through the adoptive parent(s). This replacement also applies in cases where the player was not adopted, but one or both biological parents were themselves adopted.
In September 2020, the 70th edition of the FIFA Congress approved a rule change that now allows players to switch if they have played no more than three competitive matches at senior level prior to them turning 21 including no appearances in FIFA World Cup finals matches or continental finals (e.g. the UEFA European Championship). However, appearing in a tournament qualifier would not. Furthermore, players who played for their home country but not at senior level, who were under 21 at the time and have since lived in a new country for five years or more can apply for the right to represent their new place of residence. This also applies to players that began living on the territory before the age of 10 for at least three years.
FIFA takes punitive action against teams that field ineligible players. In August 2011, FIFA expelled Syria from the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification process following the appearance of George Mourad in a senior qualification match against Tajikistan. Mourad had made friendly match appearances for Sweden earlier in his career, but had not requested permission from FIFA to change national associations before playing for Syria.
At the men's football tournament at the 2015 Pacific Games, which also determines the 2016 Oceania Olympic Football qualifier, Deklan Wynne, who was born in South Africa and raised in New Zealand from early childhood, played in the semi-final for New Zealand, who won the match 3–0. After the game, a protest was lodged by their opponents Vanuatu, on the basis that Wynne was not an eligible player. As Wynne was 20 years old, it was impossible for him to have already lived in New Zealand for five years after the age of 18. This protest was upheld by the Oceania Football Confederation, resulting in New Zealand being disqualified and Vanuatu taking their place in the final.
During the 2018 World Cup qualifiers Bolivia fielded Paraguayan‑born Nelson David Cabrera (who had also played for Paraguay) in two matches—against Peru on 1 September 2016 (the match was won 2–0 by Bolivia) and against Chile on 6 September 2016 (the match finished in a scoreless draw). Cabrera was subsequently found to be ineligible by FIFA, which resulted in the awarding of 3–0 wins for Bolivia's opponents, affecting the final standings in the table and contributing to Peru's qualification for the World Cup at the expense of Chile.
There has been a series of additional agreements between national football associations of the United Kingdom (The Football Association, the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales and the Irish Football Association), the latest of which came in 2010 and was ratified by FIFA.
In 1990, Nigel Spackman wanted to be called up by Scotland during his time at Rangers F.C. through his Scottish grandfather. However at the time, the four British Associations did not choose to accept players without parents pertaining to the nation. The Herald reported that "until recently that would have been enough to give him qualification to play for Scotland. But under an agreement by the four home associations it is not enough any more."
The agreement is often erroneously thought to be a response to cases similar to Maik Taylor, who was born in Germany to an English father and chose to represent Northern Ireland at international level despite having no ties to the nation. Taylor was called up to Northern Ireland in 1998, five years after the 1993 (gentlemen's) agreement was in place. The agreement was not applied when Taylor was called up by the IFA, possibly because in his case, neither the FA, SFA nor FAW was interested in capping him, unlike e.g. David Johnson (below) and so raised no objection.
Taylor was eligible to play for Northern Ireland due to FIFA regulations allowing him to. The relevant statute of the time read: "Any player who is a naturalised citizen of a country in virtue of that country’s laws shall be eligible to play for a national or representative team of that country." As there is no United Kingdom national team, he was eligible to choose a "representative team of the country" and opted for Northern Ireland. Eric Young (born in Singapore) and Pat Van Den Hauwe (born in Belgium) had both previously opted for Wales under the same rules in 1985 and 1990 respectively, although both grew up in England. Players in the same situation today would only be allowed to represent the territory of their (grand)parent's birthplace as the clause has been amended to refer to the Football Association's "territory" and not "country".
The four associations met on 27 February 1993 at Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) released minutes from the meeting to the press.
On the occasion of the meeting of the International Football Association Board on 27 February 1993 the four British associations ratified the following agreement, which came into force on 1 February 1993, on the criteria which should determine the eligibility of the player to be selected for one of the national teams of the British associations:
- His country of birth.
- The country of birth of his natural mother or father.
- The country of birth of his natural grandmother or grandfather.
- Where the player, both natural parents, and both natural grandparents are born outside the UK, but the player is the holder of a current British passport, he may play for the country of his choice."— Scottish Football Association
David Johnson was a Jamaican international who had played four games for the Caribbean nation; his most recent game was a friendly against United States on 9 September 1999. He had previously played for the England B team and had been an unused substitute for the England under-21s. In late September 1999, the Ipswich Town forward was called up by Wales (and withdrew from the squad due to injury) and later Scotland. The Welsh and Scottish FAs believed he was eligible to play for them. Johnson was a Jamaican immigrant who was raised by foster parents in England, and he believed he could choose which UK nation to represent; the (English) Football Association (FA) had advised the player's agent that the international change of allegiance could go ahead.
However, the SFA discovered that as he had an English mother, he was not able to represent any Home nation other than England as a result. The SFA had chosen to abide by the agreement; unlike the Irish Football Association (IFA), who in addition to courting David Johnson had capped Germany-born Maik Taylor the previous year. Taylor was in the same situation as Johnson: he was born outside of the UK with one English parent. The Herald reported that "It is important to highlight, that under the agreement signed by the four British associations, the UK passport clause is only operative in the event that the player, his natural mother and father and his natural grandparents, are all born outside the United Kingdom".
A Football Association of Wales (FAW) spokesman Cerri Stennett said that they were "extremely puzzled by this development" and they thought "he was eligible to play for any of the four home countries and that's why Lawrie McMenemy wanted him for Northern Ireland as well." Stennett stated that FIFA gave clearance to Johnson switch allegiance to Wales' national squad and "he was on the substitute's bench for a match."
Under Lawrie McMenemy's stewardship, Northern Ireland went through a phase of trying to call up players who had no links to a UK nation, Northern Ireland attempted to call up Germany-born Maik Taylor, Nigeria-born Dele Adebola and Jamaica-born David Johnson. McMenemy's successor Sammy McIlroy was not pleased with his predecessor's policy, upon being appointed as Northern Ireland manager he said: "It's farcical chasing players with absolutely no connection to our country."
Former FA executive David Davies confirmed that England had once considered calling up Italian Carlo Cudicini, Brazilian Edu and Frenchmen Steed Malbranque and Louis Saha during Sven-Göran Eriksson's time as England manager.
In February 2004, there was a lot of media speculation in Scotland about the possibility of Frenchman Didier Agathe and Italian Lorenzo Amoruso playing for Scotland. Berti Vogts, the German head coach of Scotland, appeared to be in favour of fielding the players. Scotland's playing captain Christian Dailly felt differently, telling the Daily Record newspaper that "I don't care if they call in Zinedine Zidane. I would rather lose with a team of Scots than win with a team of foreigners. This is not a club side we're talking about it's SCOTLAND...I know the players will definitely be against it".
Ahead of a meeting with the other home associations, SFA executive David Taylor urged caution ahead of calls to opt out of the agreement. He said "We have to watch it does not become a free-for-all with the home countries trying to get the best players available," "It goes to the heart of why we exist as a separate country and could force people into asking why we do not have a UK football team." On 1 March 2004, the four British associations voted to retain the agreement.
In January 2006, Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez had his hopes of bringing in players born outside Northern Ireland – but who held a British passport – dashed. Irish FA chiefs told Sanchez he could only select players who have a history with Northern Ireland. Sanchez spoke of his frustration with the rule: "I must stick by the British agreement which says that you shouldn't approach a player unless he has family ties with that particular country.
"It's frustrating but my job is to manage the Northern Ireland international team and theirs (the Irish FA) is to make policy.
"I must continue to work with the players I have and I'm very happy to do that.
The wording of the agreement was adjusted and published by FIFA in December 2006:
3. British associations
- There is a specific agreement, stipulating the conditions to play for a national team, for the four British associations134. Besides having British nationality, the player needs to fulfil at least one of the following conditions
- a) he was born on the territory of the relevant association;
- b) his biological mother or father was born on the territory of the relevant association;
- c) his grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant association.
- If a player has a British passport, but no territorial relationship as provided for in conditions a-c above, he can choose for which of the British associations he wants to play135.
134 England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
135 e.g. a player who was born on the Cayman Islands and holds British nationality
In October 2008, Spanish striker Nacho Novo said that he would apply for a British passport if it meant he'd become eligible to play for Scotland. The SFA stated that he would not be eligible as they would abide by the agreement.
The agreement was completely revised in 2009 following a rewrite of the FIFA statutes in 2008. The loophole regarding British players born abroad and selecting a national team had been closed and then reopened. The revised ruling also removed the possibility of ineligibility due to a foreign-born adopted player having no parental or grand-parental links to a nation, as it is based on where the player is educated before the age of 18.
The home nations have agreed to remove a clause that enables players to gain eligibility for one of the eight national teams due to residency. The FIFA statutes state that "Associations sharing a common nationality may make an agreement under which item (d) of par. 1 of this article is deleted completely or amended to specify a longer time limit". The clause removed is:
(d) He has lived continuously on the territory of the relevant Association for at least two years— FIFA Statutes (April 2016 edition)
If the home nations' associations had chosen not to remove or alter the 'd' clause and instead use the default FIFA statute clauses, players with a home nation nationality would be able to transfer to a club in another home nation and be eligible for that national team after a period of two years (providing they have not been capped or played in an official competition for a nation).
In February 2009, the Scottish FA's Gordon Smith put forward a proposal that would allow players educated in the FA's territory who otherwise had no blood connections to the nation to become eligible to represent the nation. The rule was ratified by FIFA in October 2009.
In June 2010, FIFA approved a minor rewording of the criteria. The introduction of the new clause allows a player to gain eligibility for a British national team if he receives five years of education in the territory of the relevant association:
d) He has engaged in a minimum of five years education under the age of 18 within the territory of the relevant association.— Home nations agreement
As a direct result of the clause change, England-born Andrew Driver became eligible to play for the Scotland national team in June 2012. Driver was initially only eligible to represent England's national team despite living in Scotland since the age of 11. Andy Dorman, who had previously been ineligible for Wales despite living in Hawarden for most of life became eligible to represent Wales. He was called up in November 2009 and made his debut for Wales on 23 May 2010 against Montenegro at the Stadion kraj Bistrice.
The criteria for eligibility to represent a home nation is:
- A Player who, under the terms of art. 5, is eligible to represent more than one Association on account of his nationality, may play in an international match for one of these Associations only if, in addition to having the relevant nationality, he fulfils at least one of the following conditions:
- 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) One of his biological grandparents was born on the territory of the relevant Association;
- d) He has engaged in a minimum of five years education under the age of 18 within the territory of the relevant association.— Home nations agreement
In July 2012, the Football Association of Wales confirmed that Swansea City F.C.'s Spanish defender Àngel Rangel is not eligible to represent Wales due to the agreement.
Players born in Northern Ireland are British citizens at birth but are also entitled to have Irish Nationality which entitles them to be selected for the representative teams of the Irish Football Association (IFA - Northern Ireland) as well as of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI - Republic of Ireland). In contrast, players born in the Republic of Ireland do not have such dual nationality from birth and, as a consequence, are confined to playing for the teams of the FAI and cannot play for Northern Ireland unless they have a parent or grandparent who was born there.
Players otherwise eligible for Northern Ireland do not need a UK passport if they have an Irish passport. A 2006 FIFA decision to require a UK passport was reversed after a month of IFA protests, with intervention from Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Dermot Ahern, the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs.
3. REGULATIONS GOVERNING THE STATUS AND TRANSFER OF PLAYERS
In this connection, two points were raised from the national associations of Belgium and Northern Ireland: (…)
b) Irish Football Association (Northern Ireland)
The Committee considered this association’s statement that almost any player can obtain a Republic of Ireland passport in order to secure eligibility to play for this country.
The Committee discussed this very serious matter at length and had to come to the unfortunate conclusion that FIFA cannot interfere with the decisions taken by any country in the question of granting passports.
The only way that the national associations could prevent their nationals from being systematically granted passports by another country to enable them to play for its national teams would be to field them in an official match for one of their national representative teams, which would bind them to this particular association"
FIFA Players Status Committee, 17 May 1994
In 2009, Daniel Kearns, who had represented Northern Ireland at youth level, declared for the Republic of Ireland. He was born in Belfast and his parents and grandparents were all from Northern Ireland. The IFA complained to FIFA that Kearns should be ineligible to represent the Republic of Ireland. FIFA responded: "As the FIFA Legal Committee understands it, the situation in Northern Ireland is such that all Northern Irish footballers could opt to play for your association teams, given that they have a birthright to an Irish passport. Evidently, the same is not applicable to the footballers of the Republic of Ireland, who do not have such a claim to a UK passport. This means that the [IFA] is exposed to a one-way situation, where players can choose to play for your association teams but the vice versa is not possible. This circumstance is rather unique and the FIFA Statutes and regulations do not provide for a solution".
In 2007, the FIFA Legal Committee invited the FAI voluntarily to confine itself to selecting for its association teams Northern Irish players who meet one of the following requirements: a) the player was born in the Republic of Ireland, b) his biological mother or father was born in the Republic of Ireland, c) his grandmother or grandfather was born in the Republic of Ireland, or d) he has lived continuously, for at least two years, in the Republic of Ireland.
FIFA also proposed an agreement between the Irish FA and the Football Association of Ireland which read:
Whereas the FAI favoured the proposal, the IFA did not. Following the IFA's rejection, FIFA told the IFA that they had "concluded to adhere to the status quo".
In 2010, the IFA challenged the FAI in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). CAS concluded that the Irish FA "cannot reasonably claim that Mr Kearns' situation is to be equated with shared nationality as provided under Article 16 or that he requests a changed of association from a starting point of a shared nationality. His situation, with respect to his Irish nationality, is not governed by Article 16, but by the general principle set forth by Article 15 par. 1 of the said Regulations. No further connection (as described by Article 16) has to exist between Mr Kearns and the Republic of Ireland to make him eligible to play for the FAI’s representative team."