When Tariq Lamptey was growing up in south London, many believed that he had the talent to make the World Cup. Lamptey played for England from under-18 level up until the U21s. Yet on Thursday, he will make his World Cup debut – not for England, but for Ghana.
In July 2020, weeks after his first Premier League start, the Ghana Football Association made contact with Lamptey, whose parents are Ghanaian. He remained involved with the England set-up, making his U21 debut two months later and playing for the side as late as March. Two months later, Lamptey asked to be left out of the U21 squad while considering switching to playing for Ghana.
“Tariq is fully aware of how important we see him – I have rung him every day,” Lee Carsley, England’s U21 coach, said at the time.
Carsley’s efforts were to no avail. This September, 26 months after his first contact with the Ghana Football Association – a far longer courting than most transfers – Lamptey made his Ghana debut.
Ghana hope that he will merely be the first in a series of English-raised players of his generation to play international football for the country. The Ghana Football Association have also been in contact with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah, who both qualify through their families. Neither have yet committed to Ghana, preferring to see how their England prospects develop.
The tussle between England and Ghana for talent is a microcosm of a broader trend: the battle for players eligible for multiple national teams. One in six players selected in the squads for Qatar 2022 – a total of 137 – were born in a different country to the one that they are representing. Of the leading 500 players in the world, 36 per cent were eligible for more than one national team, according to analysis by the sports consultancy 21st Club.
Declan Rice may now be one of England’s most important midfielders but he had previously played three friendlies for Republic of Ireland. He and his family received death threats – a reflection of how emotive switching nations is. When striker Diego Costa switched from Brazil to Spain in 2013, the Brazilian press called him “the most hated man at the World Cup”; the Brazilian football federation demanded that Costa be stripped of his Brazilian citizenship.
‘I feel I’m making a difference’
Three years ago, the father of Mohamed Ihattaren, a promising footballer born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents, died. The Morocco Football Federation president Faouzi Lekjaa attended the father’s funeral; there were even reports that the president helped to fund it. These attempts to woo Ihattaren didn’t succeed – he decided to stick with Netherlands, with his family criticising Morocco’s handling of the situation. Yet the affair highlighted the lengths to which associations will go to strengthen their national teams.
Before Chris Hughton, the son of an Irish mother and a Ghanaian father, made his debut for Republic of Ireland in 1979, he did not have any contact with Ghana. If he was playing today, Hughton is sure things would be different. “Ghana would certainly be aware of my heritage,” he says.
Earlier this year, Hughton became a technical advisor for Ghana. Part of his job entails reaching out to players eligible for the country who are also based in England. Ghana, like countries around the world, has a database of players eligible to represent them.
“It's a process that everybody will do – ultimately, it's about making your squad as strong as it can be,” Hughton explains. “As each couple of weeks passes, you're made aware of somebody else who maybe does qualify.”
Lamptey’s talents, and his eligibility, were known to Ghana for years; he attended an international as a guest of the Ghanaian Football Association before deciding to switch from England. “With Tariq, it was very much about him seeing the setup and making a decision whether to crossover,” Hughton says.
National associations hire people specifically designed to track who is eligible. In 1993, when he was nine, Hugo Alvarado and his family emigrated from El Salvador to Los Angeles. But he remained an ardent supporter of the El Salvador national team. “I suffered a lot,” he recalls. “I got very sad when we were losing.”
In 2010, Alvarado launched a website tracking who was eligible for the country, trawling Major League Soccer teams and academies, and even US universities to find second and third generation players who qualified. If players had a surname that suggested links with El Salvador he would often contact the players directly on social media. Alvarado also trawled through video footage of players, attending matches to find out who could be eligible: he spent about 30 hours a week on his project – effectively, another job to go with his actual one as an online educator.
As awareness of Alvarado’s project grew, coaches regularly contacted Alvarado to discuss players – even though his work was completely unpaid. But in 2020, Alvarado was hired as El Salvador’s first full-time scout: effectively, he was now paid to do the job that he was already doing before.
“In the last World Cup qualifiers there were anywhere between eight to 10 players that I have found throughout the last 10 years who were in each squad,” he says. “I feel I'm making a difference.”
The Di Stéfano loophole
The question of player eligibility goes back to the very first days of the World Cup. Fifa organised the first World Cup, in 1930, before they had established eligibility rules. In the first World Cup final, the midfielder Luis Monti played for Argentina. Four years later, Monti played in the final again – but, this time, for Italy. When Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup, Benito Mussolini wanted the side to be as strong as possible; Monti and four other members of the Italian diaspora, born in either Argentina or Brazil, helped Italy win the title.
The flexibility of eligibility rules – essentially there were no rules – allowed Alfredo Di Stéfano to represent three nations during his storied career: first Argentina, then Colombia and then, after he acquired citizenship while playing for Real Madrid, Spain too.
Di Stéfano, as Gijs van Campenhout from Utrecht University has documented, was the catalyst for Fifa to tighten their player eligibility rules in 1962. These rules barred players from representing two nations; in 2004, the rules were relaxed, allowing players to switch as long as they had played fewer than three games for their first nation, and only in friendlies.
But global migration patterns have driven a surge in the number of overseas-born players, as Van Campenhout has documented. In 1998, the first World Cup to feature 32 teams, 63 players represented a nation different to the one of their birth. In 2014 and 2018, the number has been 85 and 84 – the two highest figures in World Cup history, until being trumped by the 137 this year.
Some nations appear to have used the qualification criteria – players can qualify on residency grounds after five years – strategically to develop their national teams. A series of young players were attracted to Qatar by the Aspire Academy, which offered young African players elite training – aware that these footballers would one day be eligible to represent Qatar. Ten players born in other countries are in Qatar’s World Cup squad; nine are from Africa.
England’s battle for talent
New eligibility rules, introduced by Fifa in 2020, mean that the number of players representing countries different to those of their birth could well rise further. In 2020, Fifa changed the player eligibility rules allowing players who have played three or fewer games – even if they were competitive matches – to switch country, as long as those appearances came before turning 21. The change meant that Munir El Haddadi was able to play for Morocco; before, his 13 minutes for Spain in 2014 barred him from representing the country of his parents. The most obvious impact of the new rules could be to benefit smaller nations, who could now be better able to enlist diaspora players who briefly represented a bigger footballing nation before being discarded.
In few countries will fights over players eligible for multiple nations be more common than England. Jamal Musiala, who was born in Germany to a Nigerian father and German mother, moved to England aged seven and rose through the Chelsea academy. He played for England U15s, Germany U16s, England from U16s to U21s and then decided on Germany for good; he will represent the nation of his birth at the World Cup.
England are braced for a series of tussles over players in the years ahead: Eberechi Eze – born in England to Nigerian parents; Anthony Gordon, who is also eligible to represent Scotland and Republic of Ireland; and Tino Livramento, who can represent Portugal and Scotland. All have represented England at youth level, but their full international futures are uncertain.
Only last week, England appeared to enjoy a significant boost: Fabio Carvalho withdrew from Portugal’s U21 squad, seemingly clearing the way for the Liverpool forward to switch to England, where he has lived since the age of 11. Portugal’s U21 coach proclaimed himself “disappointed” at the saga: he only learned of Carvalho’s decision by text.
Such wrangling over players eligible for two – or even more – nations will become even greater in the years ahead. More than ever, how teams perform in the World Cup is being shaped by whether they can win the battle off the pitch: to convince players eligible for multiple counties that they are the best fit.