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The Sports Stars That Switch Sides

Before the recent FIFA football World Cup In Brazil, some pundits predicted a Brazil versus Spain dream final, the winner from last time against the home nation. In the event both sides imploded and were eliminated from the competition.

Source: Goal.com

If the game had taken place, however, we would have seen one intriguing selection on the team sheets. Assuming he was fit, Diego Costa, the Brazilian born, raised and qualified striker, would have run out onto the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro watched by millions of his compatriots, determined to win the game for… Spain.

The saga of Costa, now a Spanish citizen, is perhaps the most celebrated case of the expat sportsman or woman going abroad to work and then, for a variety of career or personal reasons, changing nationality. (Since the World Cup Chelsea have bought the player from Atlético Madrid.)

We are familiar with top sportsmen being sold to an overseas team. It's common in football (soccer in the USA) and in other games such as cricket, rugby and ice hockey. Generally these itinerant players stay for a set period and either move to another overseas club or return home.

Since the early 2000s there has been a much smaller, but growing number of elite expat players for whom this fresh country isn't just a place of work, it's their new homeland.

Foreign Legion

Among footballers, the best example in players moving to represent another country was the Algeria football team in the 2014 World Cup. 16 of the 17 team members were born in France, but were eligible to play for Algeria through family. The architect of the scheme to entice them across, with a better prospect of playing at international level, was Mohammed Raouraoua, president of the Algerian Football Association.

Source: Flickr normalityrelief

The same happened on a smaller scale in the USA. National team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is himself a German national plying his trade abroad, coaxed several players, among them Julian Green, Mix Diskerud, a former Norway prospect, and Aron Johannsson, who has represented Iceland. The football world governing body, FIFA, stipulates that players may switch allegiances once, provided they are citizens of their new countries. (Holding two passports is the easiest way to do this.) They must also not have represented their original country in a competitive game at senior level.

In all, 88 expat players turned out in Brazil for a country different to that of their birth. 26 of those were originally from France. England had one such player. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica and came to England at the age of five.

The concept of the country-swapping sportsperson is hardly new. Nine of the 13 players in Great Britain's gold-medal winning ice hockey team in the 1936 Winter Olympics grew up in Canada. GB had finished third in 1924 and fourth in 1928 with teams "largely composed of Canadian Army officers and university graduates living in the U.K".

Many of those earlier nation changes came out of necessity. Champion British bridge player Rixi Markus fled the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938. Others made the move when they married a foreign national, or as a result of the family’s immigration.

Pass the passport

It is in the Olympic Games where you will find widespread examples of nation changing, both for the convenience of the athlete and for their new country. Qatar welcomed several African athletes in the 2000 Sydney games. Other Gulf States, such as Bahrain importing Kenyan distance runners to compete for it, have followed suit. In some cases athletes have been required to adopt Islam and change their names.

Since then several former Soviet republics have welcomed nationals of other countries into their teams, and made life very comfortable for their new citizens. In 2008 five Russian tennis players moved to Kazakhstan. They were followed by four Chinese-born weightlifters , who also took Kazakh citizenship and Kazakh-sounding names, to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan is another country proffering the cheque-book to build a team. Around half the 50 athletes who represented the new republic in the London games were naturalised citizens.

The derogatory term "Plastic Brit" was applied to several athletes who chose to compete for Britain in the London Olympics, but they were able to do so because they had a British parent or partner, not because they were fast tracked into citizenship, as South Africa runner Zola Budd was in 1984, in a matter of weeks. (As a South African, she was ineligible to compete for her home country, and banned from international sport because of its policy of apartheid.) Today it takes five years or more to obtain UK citizenship, even if you are an elite sports star.

Korea switch

For the most extreme case of "pass the passport" look no further than last winter’s Sochi Olympics, when speed skater Ahn Hyun-soo, triple gold medallist for his country South Korea in the 2006 Winter Olympics, again struck gold, but under his new name of Viktor Ahn, this time racing for his newly adopted country of Russia. Ahn was injured and was not reselected by S. Korea after he recovered. He fell out with his governing body and looked around for a new nation. It sounds shameless, but, winning gold suggests Ahn was right to try to pick up his career to fulfil his undoubted talents.

Source: Flickr Daniel Peckham

Such transfers are still within the rules of the International Olympic Committee, whose charter stipulates only that athletes must be citizens of the country they represent. It's up to the receiving country to decide how to award citizenship.

There were several other examples in the 2014 games of athletes, in particular ice skaters, switching countries. The most self-indulgent was that of prosperous American couple Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, from Staten Island, N.Y. who took Dominican citizenship, which involves making an investment of $100,000, plus administration fees, in order to qualify for that country's Olympic cross-country skiing team.

The practice seems likely to continue in the Olympic Games, however much the the purist might demur. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge accepts that some athletes have legitimate motives to change nationalities, including family reasons or a lack of financial support or infrastructure in their native countries. However switched from one well-funded nation to another made him uneasy. "We cannot oppose it because it's a sovereignty matter, but I don't love that."

Overseas stars

So will we see a growth of expats in other sports moving abroad, and even becoming citizens there in order to pursue their chosen discipline? Cricket and rugby are two sports where players have plied their trade in other countries and qualify to play there, even if they didn't become naturalised. One of the best-known cricketers to change his allegiance is ex-England star Kevin Pietersen. He lived in South Africa, representing his country against England, until he was 20, before moving to England and performing brilliantly if erratically for his adopted nation.

The England rugby team in particular is dotted with overseas players who have put down deep roots here. Dylan Hartley, who left his native New Zealand at 16, is only the most recent. Another player who gave conspicuous service to England without losing his South African accent is Mike Catt. And a steady stream of South Africans have come to England to play on extended contracts for the Saracens.

For British rugby players moving abroad, France is by far the most popular country. French sides, with their bigger budgets, have attracted some major stars, notably Jonny Wilkinson, who had several successful years, and a very good lifestyle, in Toulon. Now he is being followed by the biggest Wales star, Leigh Halfpenny, who has just moved to the same club.

Looking again at football, there are several cases of players making the full nationality change for better opportunities. Former Chelsea playmaker Deco became a Portuguese citizen, and played for the country, after he was overlooked by his native Brazil. Patrick Vie born in Senegal, chose to represent France. Ironically when he turned out for France to play against his country of birth in the World Cup, Cameroon won the match.

Look out for the Qatar team sheet in the 2022 World Cup. As host nation, it automatically qualifies, but carries a very low world ranking. The country has already imported talent, paying eight Bulgarian weightlifters a reported $1 million apiece to compete for it in 2000 Sydney Olympics. Will it entice foreign stars across in good time to gain citizenship and play in the tournament?

There is one country where we are not likely to see such a thing. English football players are notoriously home-loving, and slow to move abroad (possibly to the detriment of their own game development), even on short term transfers to overseas clubs, from which are almost certainly return home in a few years time. David Beckham is the most conspicuously rare example of the international English football star in recent years.

Playing at home

Of the 23 players in the England squad in the 2014 World Cup, every single one plays in the English Premier League. And the only one to escape the strong emotional ties of his home country (Sterling has been in England since he was five) is Fraser Forster, and he is only moved as far as Glasgow.

There are arguments on both sides for expat sportsmen and women who move abroad full-time. Quite apart from the understandable motive of pursuing their own career in a country with the resources to let them develop their skills, there is the inspiration they can give their new country's young people, who had never considered that particular sport. The coach of Kazakhstan's weightlifting team said imported Chinese athletes were raising competition levels and helping to popularise little-known sports.

And yet we also admire the athlete who defiantly battles on for the underdog nation where he was actually born, when it might have been easier to seek his fortune elsewhere.

One of my most treasured sporting memories is of long-distance runner Augusto Ramos Soares, competing in the men's marathon in the 2012 London Olympics. He was running for the new nation of Timor-Leste, and he was in last place as the race passed through the City of London on the third of three 8.5 mile laps. We knew he was coming and not a soul left the crowded roadside. When he passed, a full two minutes behind the penultimate runner, we cheered him to the City's high rooftops. No flashy new passport could ever buy that sort of reception.


Gareth Davies

Written by Gareth Huw Davies

In a busy journalistic career Gareth Huw Davies has contributed to UK and overseas publications on a wide range of subjects, from property to travel, and business to the environment, most recently for the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday. He has also written five e-books, on subjects as diverse as Garfield Sobers, David Attenborough and the River Fleet.