The dynamics of nationality and football

Diego_Costa_Playing_ for_ Brazil
Monday, 28 April 2014 By Konstantinos Margaritis

In the increasingly international sports community, Konstantinos Margariti explores the dynamics of nationality and football, and puts forward his views on why we should think twice before trying to frame the interrelationship from the perspective of sports.

Recently, attention of the football society around the world has been drawn to the case of Diego Costa. Diego Costa is a Brazilian football player who, since 2007, has been continuously playing for various Spanish football clubs. On 5 July 2013, he obtained Spanish nationality and became a dual citizen of both Brazil and Spain. His high level of performance for his current club, Atletico Madrid, led the Royal Spanish Football Federation to make an official request to FIFA for permission to call Diego Costa to play for the Spanish national team, even though he had already made two appearances for the Brazilian squad in two friendly matches against Italy and Russia1.

Diego Costa’s case, which isn’t isolated, brings into focus the wider issue of how the world of football interacts with the concept of nationality. The author believes that, to get the core of the topic requires us to undertake a broad exploration of how the prevailing political landscape relates to multi-nationalism in football, rather than to analyse any specific legal decision relating to a particular player.

The aim of this article is to explore how and why the issue is best defined in terms of the general rules of nationality (particularly the relationship person and state) and to then explore the results.



A number of players, most notably from Brazil, have been naturalized in different countries around the world to try to help national teams progress further in international football and to play in international competitions. African countries in particular have been accused of giving nationality to foreign players purely so that they may represent them in international football competitions2. One such case is Equatorial Guinea, which has naturalized players originating from a variety of countries (Brazil, Liberia and Cameroon3). Many European teams, including football giants such as Germany and Spain , have acted similarly in certain periods of their recent history4.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has proved controversial. President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter stated in 2007 in relation to footballers changing their nationality: “if we don't stop this farce, if we don't take care about the invaders from Brazil towards Europe, Asia and Africa then, in the 2014 or the 2018 World Cup, out of the 32 teams you will have 16 full of Brazilian players5. He continued to propose that the EU should promote a set of rules in order to stop the overwhelming presence of non-national players in club leagues; an approach that, with reference to players that hold EU citizenship, is arguably incompatible with fundamental principles of EU law, as the principle of non-discrimination on the ground of nationality6. In line with the aforementioned, the EC Commission’s White Paper on Sport, released in 2007 , underlined the prohibition of discrimination on the ground of nationality regarding free movement and residence within EU territory as well as among workers that hold nationality of one of the member states as indicated in the Treaties7.

However, the Commission accepted restrictions to the principle of free movement in certain occasions but under strict circumstances. In the words of the Commission, those restrictions have to be limited and proportionate and always in accordance with the Treaties and ECJ rulings. As far as players that hold EU citizenship are concerned, the Treaties explicitly prohibit any form of restrictions, a principle confirmed by the ECJ in the famous Bosman case. Therefore, the concept of “non-nationals” in the words of President Blatter may refer only to third country nationals.


The current regulatory backdrop

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Konstantinos Margaritis

Konstantinos Margaritis

Konstantinos holds a Degree in Law and LLM in International and European Public Law and currently is a PhD candidate at the Law School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He works as an Attorney at Law in Greece, mostly specializing in administrative law and protection of fundamental rights.

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