International football may have lost some of its allure for some, but playing for one's country remains the pinnacle for many footballers and the World Cup is still the most popular sporting event in the world.
One of the major talking points within the international game in the 21st century has been the practice of switching teams, which has been facilitated by FIFA. Indeed, there are now plenty of examples where footballers have represented a country, even up to senior level, before later declaring for another country.
In late 2020, FIFA announced at its 70th annual congress that the eligibility rules had been updated, in what administrators have described as the "first wholesale modernisation" of the rules, with added codification and clarification.
So, in case you are scratching your head about it all, Goal takes a look at why it is that players can change national team, what the new rules say and some of the high-profile examples of switches.
On this page
- Why can footballers change international teams?
- What are the new eligibility rules?
- Which footballers have switched national teams?
- How many times can footballers switch national teams?
- Which nationalities cover more than one FIFA national team?
Why can footballers change international teams?
Footballers can change international team thanks to the FIFA eligibility rules. Article 9 of FIFA's Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes deals with changing association.
The rules allow a player to change their national team allegiance only once, but the 2020 update also facilitates a reversal of a change request in certain specific circumstances.
FIFA allows footballers to change their international team allegiance in recognition of the complexities of individual identity that accompany the increasingly globalised society in which we live.
It is generally accepted that there are many players who hold more than one nationality and whose attachment to a particular country or countries is inherently nuanced.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has explicitly acknowledged the need to create regulatory space for situations pertaining to players who, for example, may have been born in one country then raised in another or cases where a player has parents from different countries.
Speaking at the FIFA Football Law Annual Review in March 2021, Infantino explained: "We have amended the eligibility rules for national teams because it is important in a globalised world where players maybe have two or three different nationalities that they are given the opportunity to choose their country or to change - if certain strict conditions are met.
"We needed to address situations of particular hardship and that is what made us go in that direction."
While some, including a number of current and ex-professional footballers, may hold the view that once you play for one country, your colours have been nailed to the mast, FIFA is committed to a legal regulatory framework which aims to avoid the experience of "excessive hardship" on the part of players.
The term "excessive hardship" features a number of times in the commentary which was published in tandem with the rule update and it relates to situations where players are effectively denied the chance of an international career.
What are the new eligibility rules?
The new eligibility rules build on the foundation of the rules that had already been in place prior to September 2020.
So, the basis of the eligibility rules is effectively the same, but there have been a number of clarifications and some additional insertions.
In particular, FIFA has added three new exceptions whereby a player may change the national team they play for.
First, it is now possible for a player to change national team even if they have played competitively at senior level, provided:
- the player held the nationality of their new association at the time of their first official appearance for their first national team.
- the player played in no more than three competitive senior games before the age of 21.
- the player has not played in the final stage of an official tournament such as the World Cup, European Championship, Copa America etc.
- at least three years have passed since the player's last senior appearance for their previous national team.
So, a player who is eligible for England and Republic of Ireland could, for the sake of argument, play for England in three World Cup 2022 qualification games, then represent Ireland at the 2026 World Cup. The opposite - playing at a World Cup then switching - is not permitted.
Second, a player can now change to a new national team even if they did not hold that nationality at the time of their first appearance for their old national team, as long as they last played for the old national team before the age of 21.
It should be noted that there is an exception underpinned by the principle of legal certainty, whereby the age limit of 21 does not apply to players who played their last match for their old national team prior to September 18, 2020, when the new rules were introduced. This exception explains why Aymeric Laporte, who played for France Under-21s at the age of 21 in 2016, is permitted to switch to Spain.
Finally, a competitive cap will not keep a player tied to a national team in the event that they suddenly become stateless - that is, lose their nationality - against their will.
Nationality is key
Nationality continues to underpin the rules and remains the starting point of the entire concept of national team eligibility. As Article 5.1 states:
"Any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the association of that country."
In some cases, a nationality could potentially entitle you to play for more than one FIFA member association (see below) and Article 6 comes into play.
For example, a total of 11 national teams (including the four 'Home Nations') require a player to possess British nationality in order to be eligible, but Article 6 indicates that they must also satisfy one of the following:
- The player was born on the territory of the association.
- The player's biological mother or father was born on the territory of the association.
- The player's grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the association.
- The player has lived on the territory of the association for at least five years.
If a player acquires a new nationality in order to play for a national team, Article 7 applies and the above stipulations also apply in such a scenario.
FIFA has published a wonderfully digestible video explainer of the rules which can be watched on the federation's official YouTube channel here. Alternatively, if you are keen to read the rules in their entirety, you can access FIFA's Statutes (2020 edition) here.
Which footballers have switched national teams?
Declan Rice famously switched allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England in 2019, despite having played three friendly games for the Irish senior team.
There have been a number of other high profile examples, such as Diego Costa (Brazil to Spain), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Germany to Ghana) and Wilfried Zaha (England to Ivory Coast).
Historically, before FIFA tightened its rules in the past, Alfredo Di Stefano represented Argentina, Colombia and Spain, while Ferenc Puskas played for both Hungary and Spain.
We have included some examples in the table below.
|Player||Original team||Switched to|
|Alex Bruce||Republic of Ireland||Northern Ireland|
|Jack Grealish||Republic of Ireland||England|
|Geoffrey Kondogbia||France||Central African Republic|
|Declan Rice||Republic of Ireland||England|
|Wilfried Zaha||England||Ivory Coast|
How many times can footballers switch national teams?
The eligibility rules allow a footballer to change their national team allegiance only once - but the new rules do allow for a reversal of that one switch in certain circumstances.
Confusion has understandably arisen among the football community regarding players who appear to have switched more than once.
Former Bayern Munich youth Ryan Johansson, for example, has played in games for Luxembourg, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.
However, many of those appearances came in unofficial competition. In other words, they were friendly games, some of which were played at non-FIFA age groups (such as Under-16 or Under-18 schoolboy).
His only official, competitive appearances were for Luxembourg, meaning he could still potentially elect to use his one request to change.
In its commentary of the rules update, FIFA has indicated a desire to combat what it terms 'nationality shopping' - so switching back and forth or playing for a number of different national teams is evidently frowned upon.
Which nationalities cover more than one FIFA national team?
|Nationality||FIFA member teams|
|American||USMNT, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands|
|British||England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat|
|Chinese||China PR, Hong Kong, Macau|
|Danish||Denmark, Faroe Islands|
|Dutch||Netherlands, Aruba, Curacao|
|French||France, Tahiti, New Caledonia|
|New Zealand||New Zealand, Cook Islands|
The nationalities which cover more than one international team are American, British, Chinese, Danish, French, Dutch and New Zealand.
Political peculiarities and historic links are the reason for the shared nationalities.
In order to play for the United States national team, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa or the U.S. Virgin Islands, a footballer must first have American nationality.
The list is even bigger when it comes to British nationality, which is not only needed to play for England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The other national teams which require their players to have British nationality include Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Montserrat.
You can see the full list in the table above.