Costa and Jóhannsson: Different Paths to a One-Time Switch, Similar Football Association Reactions

Brazilian-born Athletico Madrid striker, Diego da Silva Costa

Another international footballer has taken advantage of FIFA’s one-time national team switch rules, and the move is making headlines because of the quality of the player and the jilted football association’s reaction.  Athletico Madrid striker Diego da Silva Costa has committed his international future to Spain despite playing in two international friendlies earlier this year for Brazil, his country of birth.  And while the FIFA rules have allowed multiple players to change national allegiances since the eligibility rules were revised in 2009, few players’ decisions have caused the commotion that Costa’s announcement has caused.

Shortly after Costa announced that he would change national team allegiances from Brazil to Spain, the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol  (the Brazilian Football Confederation or the “CBF”) issued a remarkable statement suggesting that the Brazilian government should strip Costa of his Brazilian citizenship.  A CBF director stated:

It’s obvious that the reason he made that choice was financial.  The chairman [of the CBF [Jose Maria Marin]] authorised me to open a legal action at the Justice Ministry requesting that he loses his Brazilian citizenship, which Diego Costa has rejected.  I have no doubt that he was allured. He suffered two hours of peer pressure from the Spanish on Monday night and another two hours on Tuesday morning. Diego Costa talks about love on the letter he sent CBF, but he chose Spain in the same year he played two friendly matches for Brazil and now on the same week he has been called up for two other friendlies. . . . The chairman told me that Costa has proved he’s not fit to be part of the [Brazil manager Luiz Felipe] Scolari family, that he would contaminate the family because he’s not committed to Brazil, but to Spain. He rejected his Brazilian citizenship. Marin has asked me to study the situation deeply in order to keep him from ever playing for Spain.

The CBF’s reaction, while amusing, may be the start of a trend among national football associations in response to international players changing national team allegiances.  The CBF’s reaction may sound familiar to United States soccer fans (and perhaps Icelandic soccer fans).  In the summer of 2013, AZ Alkmaar striker Aron Jóhannsson filed his official one-time switch paperwork with FIFA to become eligible to play for the United States after representing Iceland in official U21 European Championship qualifiers.  The Iceland football association reacted with a searing response:

Aron Jóhannsson is an Icelander born in the USA in 1990 where he lived in the first years of his life. Aron’s parents are Icelandic. Aron got his soccer education under the [Iceland football association] umbrella, with Fjölnir, where he played all the junior years . . . and then played for their full team, before joining AGF in Denmark on September 1st 2010.

Aron Jóhannsson played 10 international matches for Iceland U21 in 2011 and 2012. Of these 10 games 8 of them were in UEFA competitions and Aron was a starter in each of them. . . . Aron has no link to soccer in the USA at all.

Yesterday a statement from Aron was published where he expressed his desire to play for the USMNT. The only thing that has been pointed out to [the Iceland football federation] from an interested party, is that his income potential, as a USA player, is much greater, both in the form of grants and sponsorship, than if he were an Iceland player. It is simply so that an Iceland National team member must play for land and country and for that they get honor and glory.

It is the utmost wish of KSÍ that Aron turns back on his ideas to change national teams. Aron is an Icelander through and through who we need in the tough international competitions. . . .  Hopefully the public and media will respond and challenge Aron to continue competing for Iceland. . . .

There is no logic behind Aron relinquishing his Icelandic soccer identity.

A common denominator in the football associations’ statements is the accusation that the players were motivated by financial considerations to change national teams.  Another commonality, of course, appears to be a certain amount of frustration at the loss of a talented player.  The players’ situations, however, are different and ultimately the players’ motivations for filing a one-time switch are not relevant under FIFA rules.

The relevant FIFA rules can be broken down into roughly three categories: (1) the determination of nationality; (2) eligibility to play for multiple countries  in which a player holds nationality; and (3) changing eligibility to represent one country or football association after playing for a different country or football association.

First, under Article 5(1) of the Regulations Governing the Applications of Statutes (the “Regulations”) (FIFA Statutes), a player who holds permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative team of that football association or country.  Second, under Article 6 of the Regulations, if a player is eligible to represent more than one football association or country based on his nationality, he may play in an international match for that football association or country only if (1) he was born in the territory of the relevant football association; (2) his biological mother or father was born in the territory of the relevant football association; (3) his grandmother or grandfather was born in the territory of the relevant football association; or (4) he has lived continuously in the territory of the relevant football association for at least two years.

When it comes to obtaining eligibility to play for multiple national teams, Costa’s and Jóhannsson’s circumstances are distinguishable.  Costa was born in Lagarto, Brazil, and prior to signing with Athletico Madrid in 2007, Costa had no connection to Spain.  The 25-year-old striker, however, was granted Spanish citizenship in July after living in the country for over five years as a professional player.  In order to declare his intention to play for Spain, Costa relied on Article 7(d) of the Regulations, which permits a player to “assume a new nationality” if he has not already played in an international match in an official competition for another football association or country if the player “has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association.”  In other words, despite not having a connection to Spain prior to living in the country while playing professional soccer, Costa was able to assume a new Spanish nationality under Article 7(d) of the Regulations.

By contrast, Jóhannsson has been able to claim dual United States and Iceland nationality under Article 6 of the Regulations since birth: Jóhannsson was born in the United States and each of his biological parents were born in Iceland.  Thus, although Jóhannsson spent considerable time playing with Icelandic youth national teams, Jóhannsson has continuously had the option to play at the senior level for either country.

Both Costa and Jóhannsson ultimately decided to file one-time national team switches with FIFA.  Under Article 8 of the Regulations, “[i]f a Player has more than one nationality, or if a Player acquires a new nationality, or if a Player is eligible to play for several representative teams due to nationality” he may file a one-time request to change the football association for which he is eligible to play to another country’s association if (1) he has not played in an official competition at “A” international level for his current Association and (2) at the time of any appearance in an international match in an official competition for his current football association, he already held the nationality of the team of the football association for which he wishes to play.   Costa and Jóhannsson initially played in friendly matches or official youth national team matches, respectively, before filing their one-time switches.  Costa did not run afoul of Article 8 because the Brazil friendly matches in March 2013 were not official competitions at the “A” international level.  Jóhannsson played in official competitions (the European U21 qualifiers) for Iceland, but those competitions were not at the “A” international level.  Further, Jóhannsson was eligible to play for the United States at the time he represented Iceland at the youth level.

There may be many motivations associated with the players’ one-time switches, be it a feeling of national pride or identity, the opportunity to play international soccer on the biggest stages, the opportunity to win trophies, or, as the CBF and Iceland football association might suggest, financial reasons.  Ultimately, the path by which each player gained the ability to play for multiple countries is irrelevant under the Regulations, although one can understand the frustration on the parts of the CBF and Iceland football association.  The distinct circumstances leading to each of Costa’s and Jóhannsson’s switches, however, illustrate the varied avenues in which a player can break ties with one football association and formally declare his allegiance to another football association.

There is much at stake for the players, as well as the federations.  The Regulations provide flexibility to players to choose their national team and do not limit the basis on which those players may make such decisions.  The heated reactions of the CBF and Iceland football association make the situations far more scandalous than they need to be.  What’s done is done, and the accusatory, almost petulant reactions will not bode well for associations that will inevitably face similar situations in the future.

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