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

Multiple Flags Flying
Monday, 13 July 2015 By Adam Lovatt

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.

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Written by

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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