What does it mean to play for your country?

Much has been made about New Jersey-born, Italian-named Giuseppe Rossi choosing to play for Italy - and hosting his Azzurri coming-out party against the nation that he spurned.  Rossi- whose parents were born in Italy- subbed in for Italy and tattered our defense for two goals, sealing off any hopes of a US upset, in the US Mens National Team's first Confederations Cup debacle (of 2 and counting) on Monday in South Africa. (Michael Lewis story, with plenty of valid counterpoints to any traiter arguments, here.) There's even chatter that the 20 year-old star, now playing his club ball for Villarreal in Spain, is somehow traitorous for not playing for an Italian club.

The most interesting part of this, though, and any story about  players choosing which country to represent (like this story about how the USMNT may gain tough middie Jermaine Jones, and how FIFA's eligibility rules- see below- may soon loosen up even more), isn't about Rossi, but about this:

What does it really mean to play for your national team?

Technically speaking, it means you are eligible, and they want you.

Fortunately FIFA makes it relatively easy to be eligible for players to play for countries to which they are connected. With a little digging I found Articles 15-18 of FIFA's "Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Legal Statutes," which describe the eligibility of athletes to play for national teams.  Article 15 says it all:

Any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the Association of that country .

With a few exceptions, once a soccer player has played for one country, they can't play for any other.  But as long as you were born in the territory of a nation, or either of your parents or any of your grandparents were, or you've lived in the country for at least two continuous years (five in some cases), you are eligible for that Association's national team.  That means you could conceivably be eligible for 8 different national teams. 

In a word, FIFA's eligibility rules are loose, and they absolutely should be. Imagine if they were far more strict and prevented a player from suiting up for a nation that he truly identified with. So Rossi, with strong ties to Italy and an opportunity, is justified.

So assuming a player is eligible, and his national team wants him, the path is clear to wear the jersey and go from there- as Rossi did this week and as Jones hopefully soon will for the U.S.

But the real point that in soccer- more so than in any other team sport, at least on a global scale- there is nothing more important or honorable than suiting up for your national team.  Players leave their high-paying club jobs to do so routinely (although the major European leagues tend to schedule around such conflicts.) In the U.S., its a bit trickier, with MLS season when it is, but you don't hear about a  soccer player- even in the US- "considering" an offer to play for USMNT.  Imagine Jerry Colangelo when he hears from an NBA player that they'll mull it over, when he invites them to camp for our Olympics hoops program.

So, envy-inspiring as it was to watch Rossi torch us on Monday, celebrate the idea that in our sport, there is nothing better than getting the call to represent your heritage and making the most of it.


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