The debate over nationality in sport: a comparison of the different rules of governing bodies of sport

Published 13 July 2015 By: Adam Lovatt

Multiple Flags Flying

Nationality: (i) Distinctive national or ethnic character; (ii) An ethnic group forming a part of one or more political nations.1

The debate around nationality in international sport is more intense and subject to more scrutiny than ever before, particularly in light of Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup and the number of sportsmen and sportswomen seeking to change nationality and represent a new nation in a variety of sports.

This article considers the differences that prevail across sports by comparing the relevant rules on nationality and eligibility in handball, football, tennis, Olympic sports (with a specific focus on taekwondo) and rugby ahead of the sevens making its debut in the Rio Olympics next summer.

It also considers the future direction of the nationality in sport debate, and how sports governing bodies currently approach the issue in differing ways.



In January 2015, handball was in the spotlight for player eligibility during the World Championships, held in Qatar. The hosts, perhaps quite remarkably, came runner-up in the competition, losing in the final to France after an unexpected run through the tournament. Within the Qatari team, only four players were born in the country, with the vast majority coming from countries such as France and Spain.2 Qatar, however, acted completely within the rules in having ‘foreign’ stars lining up for them.

The International Handball Federation Eligibility Code3 provides at Article 6 that an individual is entitled to play for a country in the event that they have:

citizenship of the country concerned” and have “not played in any national team of another country in the three years preceding their first appearance in the national team in an official match.

In order to meet the requirements of Article 6, the individual concerned must have lived in the territory of the country for whom they wish to appear for at least 24 months during their life. An individual is only entitled to obtain eligibility to play for a new national team on one occasion (therefore a three year gap between appearing for international sides is permitted).

In light of the controversy surrounding the World Championships, and the extent to which Qatar relied on exploiting the eligibility rules to succeed, it is - in the author’s view - possible that the rules will now be reviewed and amended. However, as the next World Championships are being held in France in 2017, and are being co-hosted by Germany and Denmark in 2019 (all relative powerhouses in international handball), the issue may not now be as pertinent as when Qatar were awarded the rights to host the 2015 World Championships.



As discussed in this author’s prior blog,4 Diego Costa took advantage of the FIFA Statutes5 in choosing to represent Spain rather than Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. Article 7 of the FIFA Statutes provides that a player can play for a new international team provided they have ‘lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association’ and that they have not played an official competition match for another national state at any stage in their career. As Costa had only played friendly matches for Brazil prior to opting to choose to represent Spain, he was entitled to play for a second international team and now turns out regularly for the 2010 World Cup winners in competitive matches.

Article 7 of the FIFA Statutes also provides that a player can represent a new international team if they meet one of the three criteria outlined below and have not played a competitive match for another country:

a) He was born on the territory of the relevant Association;

b) His biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of the relevant Association;

c) His grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant Association.

In the UK, the issue over nationality in football has been on the back pages in recent times as a result of the Jack Grealish case.6 Grealish, who impressed for Aston Villa during the second half of the 2014/2015 Premier League season, turned down a call up to the Republic of Ireland squad for the end of season Euro 2016 qualifying matches, in order to hold out for a possible call up to the England national team. Grealish has Irish grandparents, and therefore is entitled to play for the Republic in accordance with Article 7 of the FIFA Statutes.7 Grealish was not included in either the England or the Ireland squads for the June international fixtures, with both Roy Hodgson and Martin O’Neill leaving the decision as to whom Grealish should represent to the player himself. Grealish has played for the Republic at a variety of levels including Under-21s and Under-18s. However, as with Diego Costa, as he has not played an “official competition” match for the Republic, he remains eligible to play for another international side, such as England.

A further contemporary point for consideration is what the events seen at the handball World Championships may mean for the 2022 football World Cup? Can parallels be drawn? As above, the FIFA rules are rather flexible in providing that a player can choose to play for a new national association in international football providing that they have not played an official competition match for another national state. With the Qatar World Cup now only seven years away, were the host nation to seek to benefit from the FIFA rules and have foreign players moving to the county in advance of the tournament to participate on behalf of Qatar, such a process would have to commence relatively soon. Indeed, Qatar have attempted to recruit players as far back as in 2004 from Germany,8 at which time Sepp Blatter, the FIFA President, stated that “changing citizenship, in a way that allows players who have no link to a country to join the national team, is not in the spirit of our rules…for that reason, these practises have to stop immediately.” Following the World Handball Championships, Blatter saidthat the importing of players was an “absurdity”.9

Yet, the FIFA rules still allow for this practice to take place. From Qatar’s perspective, if the rules allow for such measures to be taken, as they were for handball and may be for football, they should be used to the full advantage of the host nation. It is likely that handball will prosper in Qatar following the recent championships and the prospect of a World Cup and legacy of hosting such an event, will surely mean that football in Qatar will develop for Qatari nationals over the coming years with the imported stars acting as role models. Qatar are playing within the rules and achieving great results as a result. It is the rules that are the issue, rather than the much blamed Gulf State.

In summary, the key issue in football is whether players should have any choice in which nation they represent? To this author, it seems somewhat obscure that a player can change which national team he plays for, or can be given such a choice to make a change. There is an argument that the ability to choose a country to represent should be limited to an individual’s country of birth or country of parents’ birth, and that this is something that should be revisited in times to come, to prevent players from being able to change international teams, as they do between club sides. There may remain a choice for players, but the current ability to be able to swap between international teams as permitted by the FIFA rules is somewhat unsatisfactory to the author. There is a risk that the rules may be abused by countries in years to come to ensure that they perform better than they may otherwise do in a World Cup. This creates a risk that the public may believe that the sport is being devalued in some way as the authenticity of the competition is compromised.


While the rule in football prevents players playing for two countries in competitive matches and is only flexible in the event that a player initially plays for one country in an international friendly match, tennis had differed.

The 2014 International Tennis Federation (ITF) Rules on the Davis Cup10 provided (at Clause 34) that tennis players were permitted to play for different countries in the Davis Cup provided that the individual met the following criteria:

  1. Is a national of that country
  2. Has a valid passport of that country
  3. Has lived in that country for 24 consecutive months at some time and has not represented any other country during the period of 36 months immediately preceding the event.

That rule was previously being considered by Slovenian born player Alijaz Bedene as a route into the Great Britain Davis Cup team,11 despite him making three previous appearances for Slovenia in the same competition.

However, at the start of 2015, the ITF tightened its eligibility rules for the 2015 competition. The 2015 Rules12 provide (at clause 35) that:

"a player or captain is entitled to represent one nation only at senior professional international level."13

This means that players (like Bedene14) are now, prima facie (on the face of it), prevented from playing for more than one nation in the Davis Cup.

An appeal procedure exists under Clause 35(d) of the 2015 Rules, giving a National Association the right to seek an exception to any of the eligibility rules by seeking permission of the Davis Cup Committee. The appeal route is being used by Great Britain and Bedene to seek to allow the player to represent the nation, although the first appeal was recently rejected by the ITF.15

While the rule does 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. It does seem slightly odd however, that the same restriction applies equally for playing and non-playing Davis Cup participants (in the form of players and captains).

The potential advantage to governing bodies, such as the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in Great Britain, having players change nationality is clear. Bedene is now the second highest ranked British player who would, were it not for the 2015 rule change, be eligible to play Davis Cup matches, improving the chances of success for the country in the international competition.

From player’s perspective, not only will they miss out on representing an adopted country in the Davis Cup, but potentially also on additional funding from a governing body, such as, in Bedene’s case, the LTA, who have higher sums at their disposal to distribute to players than most other national federations.16 However it does seem fair to this author that once an individual makes a competitive appearance for one country, they should be prevented from doing so for another country.


Olympic Games: Taekwondo and Rugby Sevens

The story17 surrounding the nationality of taekwondo star Aaron Cook has been a developing one since before the London 2012 Olympic Games. At the time of the Games, Cook was the world number one in his weight category, but was not selected for Team GB due to a previous decision he had made to progress his career outside of the Team GB training programme and to seek his own coaching and performance regime.Cook has now switched nationality to Moldova,18 and is expected to represent that country at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. This change of nationality was in part created by Igor Iuzefovici, a Moldovan billionaire and president of Moldova’s taekwondo federation, who convinced Cook his sporting future lay with that Eastern European state rather than Great Britain who were unwilling to accept his individual training wishes.

This change of nationality is in accordance with the Olympic Charter19 which is very clear on rules of nationality. It provides at Rule 41 that:

Nationality of Competitors

  1. Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the NOC [National Olympic Committee] which is entering such competitor.
  2. All matters relating to the determination of the country which a competitor may represent in the Olympic Games shall be resolved by the IOC Executive Board."

Bye-law to Rule 41 states:

  1. "A competitor who is a national of two or more countries at the same time may represent either one of them, as he may elect. However, after having represented one country in the Olympic Games, in continental or regional games or in world or regional championships recognised by the relevant IF, he may not represent another country unless he meets the conditions set forth in paragraph 2 below that apply to persons who have changed their nationality or acquired a new nationality.
  2. A competitor who has represented one country in the Olympic Games, in continental or regional games or in world or regional championships recognised by the relevant IF, and who has changed his nationality or acquired a new nationality, may participate in the Olympic Games to represent his new country provided that at least three years have passed since the competitor last represented his former country. This period may be reduced or even cancelled, with the agreement of the NOCs and IF concerned, by the IOC Executive Board, which takes into account the circumstances of each case.

These rather flexible rules apply to all Olympic sports, and appear to mean that a tennis player may be eligible to participate for a country in the Olympic Games, but not in the Davis Cup (as outlined above). Clearly, this would be unsatisfactory, and it may be prevented from happening by the final sentence of paragraph 2 in the Bye-Law to Rule 41, and the possibility that a submission could be made by the International Tennis Federation to the International Olympic Committee to prevent such participation being allowed.

Paragraph 2 of the Bye-Law to Rule 41 permitted Aaron Cook to change nationality and be sure of Olympic eligibility for Moldova in 2016, having represented Great Britain in Beijing in 2008 and missed out completely in 2012. Cook’s change of nationality and a three year absence from competing for Team GB were crucial in allowing his change to be permitted.

Another sport impacted by the Olympic rules is that of rugby. Sevens rugby is making its debut at the Olympics in Rio in 2016. World Rugby Regulations state at Section 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."20

In order to represent a national side, as per Section 8.1 of the World Ruby Regulations, a player must have either:

  1. been born in that country;
  2. had a parent or grandparent born in that country; or
  3. lived in that country for a period of 36 months prior to playing for that country.

However the World Rugby have been urged to clarify the rules on eligibility21 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,22 with the World Rugby 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. Indeed World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper stated back in May23 that it was time to look at the rules in rugby and whether these should be amended to prevent the ability of players to change nations with relative ease.

It will therefore 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 Olympic Charter eligibility rules allow countries, in effect, to persuade individuals to represent them in an Olympic Games. It is easy to see this being exploited by countries aiming to secure additional medals on an international stage. While this may be portrayed as allowing the creation of ‘plastic’ athletes, the rules are clear and do potentially allow:

(a) athletes to compete in an Olympic Games, when they may not otherwise be able to due to the strength in depth in their ‘home’ country; and

(b) an athlete to receive funding from a new national federation to help them develop their careers and receive training which could take them forward and allow their skills to be developed.



The debate over nationality in sport is bound to continue over the next few years as athletes seek to ensure they can participate at an international level, which, in many disciplines, remains the pinnacle for athletes.

In the opinion of this author, it does remain somewhat unsatisfactory that an individual can participate in international competition at the Olympic Games or in international football for more than one nation during a career, potentially depriving “home-grown” athletes who have trained hard within the national system. This is particularly true when the nation involved is capable of enticing athletes with funds and guaranteed selection for top events.

As outlined in this article, the rules of each individual sport do vary quite considerably, from allowing a high degree of flexibility and movement for Olympic sports and handball, to being somewhat restrictive in football, and now very restrictive in tennis.

Due to participation levels varying in different sports, it is difficult to envisage one set of rules governing and being effective for all sports. Indeed, in the world of multiculturalism and free movement of workers that we now live, some flexibility is surely to be welcomed, provided it strikes an appropriate balance. It may well be that the balance struck in football should be followed by other sports (and indeed tennis seems to be following that method), at least to prevent athletes from swapping nations in the four year gap between Olympic Games and to ensure that competitive participation in national sport for one country prevents competitive participation in the same sport, and indeed the same event, for a different country.

If Aaron Cook secures gold medal success for Moldova in the Olympic Games next summer, it is hard to envisage more pressure not being put upon the IOC to amend the Olympic Charter in some shape or form. Similarly, any attempts by Qatar to find footballers from other countries willing to play for them in the 2022 World Cup, may well suffer from a high profile public backlash. This author would encourage the IOC to lead the way in attempting to create a set of rules that apply across all sport that fall under the Olympic banner. This would help to eliminate the differences that exist between sports, ensure that athletes participating in Olympic events know the nationality rules, and ensure that there is consistency across the various disciplines.

The debate over nationality in sport is a complex and developing one that is sure to cause further intrigue and discussion over the months and years ahead.


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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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