The continuing debate of nationality in sports

Published 26 November 2014 | Authored by: Adam Lovatt

As discussed in a previous blog1, Diego Costa took advantage of the FIFA Statutes2 in choosing to represent Spain rather than Brazil in the recent World Cup. 

Article 7 of the FIFA Statutes provides that a player who ‘has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association’ can choose to play for that national association in international football providing that they have not played an official competition match for another national state (it should be noted that Costa would not have qualified to play for Spain on any other grounds). As Costa had only played friendlies for Brazil prior to opting to choose to represent Spain, he was therefore entitled to play for a second international team.



Whilst this rule in football prevents players playing for two countries in competitive matches, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Rules on the Davis Cup (at Clause 34)3 have until now provided that male tennis players could play for different countries in the Davis Cup provided that the player had a valid passport for the country they wished to represent, they had lived in that country for a period of 24 consecutive months at some point and that they had not represented another country for a period of 36 months immediately prior to when the player wished to represent the new nation.

This rule was being considered4 by Slovenian player Alijaz Bedene as being a route into the Great Britain Davis Cup team, despite three previous appearances for Slovenia in the same competition. However it has been recently reported5 that the ITF are changing the rules for the 2015 season, which will prevent players like Bedene from playing for more than one nation in the Davis Cup (or indeed the Fed Cup – the female equivalent of the Davis Cup). Whilst the new rule will not affect junior players, it does bring tennis more into line with football in ensuring that players cannot play for more than one country in a competitive environment.


Sevens Rugby

Whilst both football and tennis have clear rules, sevens rugby is in something of a flux ahead of the sport making its debut at the Olympics in Rio in 2016. As discussed by Andrew Smith in his related blog6, the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) Eligibility Criteria states at Regulation 8.2 that:

"a Player who has played for the senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the senior National Representative Sevens Team of a Union is not eligible to play for the senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the senior National Representative Sevens Team of another Union." 7

However the IRB have now been urged to clarify their rules8 on eligibility after making a change that permitted players from Pacific nations, who may have previously represented Australia or New Zealand in international rugby, to play for their country of birth in international competition. The criteria for such a change remains to be settled,9 with the IRB changing the number of international sevens tournaments that a player would be required to play in, in order to be eligible to switch nations, from one to four.

As such, it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the months ahead as we look towards Rio 2016 and some nations seek to play players who may have international experience with the powerhouses in international rugby.



The debate over nationality in sport is bound to continue over the next few years as players seek to ensure they can take part in international sport, which in many disciplines, remains the pinnacle of sport and to where participants strive to appear.

In my opinion, it does remain somewhat unnatural that an individual can participate in sport for more than one nation during a career – despite the rules in football and tennis, which strive to prevent this taking place in a competitive arena. Whilst consistency between different sports will be hard to obtain, it can only be hoped that the appearance of rugby sevens in the Olympics, will help to clarify the issue in that specific sport and possible see it move more into line with the new provisions in tennis and what exists in football.


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About the Author

Adam Lovatt

Adam Lovatt

Adam is a lawyer specialising in sports law with IMG. Adam has a wide range of commercial and litigation experience from his four years as a qualified solicitor. Adam has a passion for sports law and is currently undertaking a IP Law Masters programme with the University of London. He is passionate about most sports particularly football, golf and tennis.

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Comments (2)

  • Tom Cripps

    27 November 2014 at 16:08 | #

    Interesting topic Adam. I can understand that practically speaking, it is hard to imagine an athlete representing more than one nation, particularly within the same sport. I think it would raise issues of trust from teammates, coaches and fans and inevitable questions would arise should the athlete ever have to compete against their second nation.

    However, having been in a relationship with someone of dual nationality for a while now, I am no longer uncomfortable with the idea that someone might have a legitimate claim to and genuine sense of loyalty to two nations, and might therefore want to spread their loyalties when competing in a sporting context. I certainly wouldn't think it unnatural.

    It is very difficult to know where you draw the line however. At what point should athletes have to make a choice, between tournaments? After a certain period of not representing either nation? From the outset?


  • Adam Lovatt

    28 November 2014 at 13:35 | #

    Thanks Tom. It is a hard one to know when, if ever, allegiances can be swapped. Maybe five years of a clean break is needed - but to get consistency across all sports, I imagine, would be almost impossible to achieve.


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