In an ever-increasingly globalised world, national football teams offer a rare beacon of consistency and separation, a unit that cannot be corrupted or diluted, influenced or relegated. Fans can embrace their shared culture and nationality, with no fear of players being poached or tempted away by bright lights and bulging pay packets. The national identification allowed by international football also drives the assimilation and acceptance of diverse racial groups into modern society, predominantly in Western Europe. Countries are building squads that reflect the growing diversity of their nations, particularly in the poor, urban youth; the breeding ground for so many of the world’s footballing superstars.
Germany has recently enjoyed notable success, with players sharing heritage with wide-ranging countries; examples being Turkey (Özil, Gündoğan), Tunisia (Khedira), Ghana (Boateng) and even England (Holtby). The key point to note is that all these players were born in Germany. Second-generation immigrants, they are now German, and Germany is now them. Despite varied origins and racial backgrounds, Germany is their nation, and they are culturally defined and linked. All could have played for the nations of their parents. All chose Germany. Numerous examples of similar trends could be highlighted in the national teams of almost every major Western European nation: France, England, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium and so on. While these countries reap the benefit of colonial ties and influxes of foreign workers and refugees, there is another, less healthy trend impacting the make-up of national teams across the globe.
Brazil is the primary exporter of footballing talent in the world. A recent report by the CIES Observatory Group has indicated that there are 515 Brazilian exports in Europe’s top 31 leagues; almost double that of the next highest exporter, France. Brazilians are liberally sprinkled across world football, those not in Europe ending up in Asia, North America and even Africa. These 515 players, allied with the increasing quality of Brazilians playing, and staying, in Brazil, means that the vast majority can never dream of a call up for the Seleção. In the absence of this option, many Brazilians are turning to the national teams of the leagues in which they play.
However, the lack of international recognition is far from the only factor. The shop-window, the platform that is provided by international football is huge, with players earning moves to some of the biggest clubs in the world off the back of star turns for adopted nations. One obvious example is Eduardo da Silva, who moved from Dinamo Zagreb to Arsenal in 2007, having scored 10 goals in 12 games in the Euro 2008 qualifiers for Croatia. Other players who have increased their visibility by playing internationally for adopted nations include Deco and Pepe, both Brazilian-Portuguese internationals who moved from the Portuguese league to the top of the pile, Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, aided by their successful international exploits.
Portugal at least offers a cultural homogeneity and colonial history, and as such lessens the impact of any Brazilian imports. As well as Deco and Pepe, Liédson of Sporting Lisbon joined the Portugal squad for World Cup 2010, in a team managed until 2008 by another Brazilian, Luiz Felipe Scolari. Portugal have historically used their colonial ties extensively, most apparent in their finest ever talent (CR7 possibly excepted), Eusébio, the ‘Black Pearl’ of Mozambique, that country also being birthplace to the manager of the 2010 team, Carlos Queiroz. But this recent trend for naturalised Brazilians can be considered differently, with 2010 Brazil manager Dunga referring to the two nations’ match in the tournament as ‘Brazil A vs Brazil B’. Portugal is now perceived as taking the scraps off the table of their former colonial subjects, in contrast to the cherry-picking of players from Mozambique, Angola and the like that previously occurred.
Filthy lucre has also reared its ugly and inevitable head as a motivator of nation-hopping. One high profile example is striker Aílton, known predominantly for top scoring in the 2003-04 Bundesliga with 28 goals for title-winning Werder Bremen, and subsequently becoming the first foreign recipient of the German footballer of the year. Offered $1 million and a passport by oil-rich Qatar in 2004 following his goal scoring exploits, his interest was stymied by the reaction of an aghast FIFA, who moved rapidly to introduce emergency legislation banning naturalisations with no link between player and prospective nation. In 2007, at the preliminary draw for the 2010 World Cup, FIFA President Sepp Blatter expressed his distaste for the propensity to naturalise Brazilians sweeping world football.
"If we don't take care about the invaders from Brazil, then we could have problems at the 2014 and 2018 World Cup finals. Out of 32 teams at the finals, we will still have other nationalities but there could be teams full of Brazilian players. If we don't stop the fast naturalisation of players in some countries, this will be a real danger. There are 60 million footballers in Brazil but only 11 places in their national team.”
While Blatter and FIFA were eager to quash the high profile case of Aílton, they are more than happy to allow lesser players and nations to continue this practice relatively unchecked. One of the most notorious advocates of Brazilian naturalisation has been manager Antônio Dumas. After spells managing in the lower leagues of Brazil and the national teams of Gabon and São Tomé and Principe, Dumas brought together these two areas of expertise in his time as manager of Togo and later Equatorial Guinea. Togo’s campaigns to qualify for both the 2004 African Cup of Nations and the 2006 World Cup were aided by the selection of six Brazilian players, with no prior connections to Togo. The practice was repeated later at Equatorial Guinea, where eight similarly unconnected Brazilians were used between 2005-07 alone. This was reportedly undertaken at the request of Ruslan Obiang, son of President Teodoro Obiang, and financial incentives were reported by the Brazilians involved. The case of Equatorial Guinea has been covered and protested extensively since, by various press including the BBC and even FIFA’s own African archivist, Mark Gleeson. Despite the practice openly continuing, FIFA and CAF have refused to take action.
There are numerous other examples of Brazilians playing international football, many with much less murky motivations and backgrounds. Just some examples of such players include: Cacau (Germany), Igor de Camargo (Belgium), Marco Aurélio (Turkey), Marcos Senna (Spain), Francileudo dos Santos & José Clayton (Tunisia), Roger Guerreiro (Poland) and Alessandro Santos (Japan). Welliton, the striker who has recently returned to Gremio in his homeland from Spartak Moscow, was previously in discussions to play for Russia, a country that has never fielded a naturalised player, and has had widely documented problems with racism. Edu Gaspar, formerly of Arsenal, was touted for an England call-up, despite not being eligible due to the Home Nations bloodline or schooling gentleman’s agreement, ratified by FIFA.
When Brazil take to the field in Sao Paulo in 2014, one can be sure that several opposition teams will be fielding Brazilian players just as proud to be playing in a ‘home’ World Cup. While professional and personal pride will ensure that these players will perform to the best of their abilities, their position is not without its weaknesses.
Mauro Camoranesi, the World Cup winning oriundi, stated that “I feel Argentine but I have defended the colours of Italy, which is in my blood, with dignity. That is something nobody can take away.” What happens when players have no blood to tie them, no heritage to link them bar a few professional years in the insulated, multi-national squads in which they work and play? While the power of football generally, and national teams specifically, can be used to bind modern nations, we must be wary of losing the integrity of national teams, the last bastion of unimpeachable tradition and identity in the game.