Ivory CoastEarlier this week, it was confirmed that Crystal Palace winger and England international Wilfried Zaha had submitted a request to FIFA to “swap” his international allegiance from England to the Ivory Coast.

However, if you rewind just 4 years, such a request would have seemed extremely unlikely.

With his star very much in the ascendant, and with a more than discernible “buzz” about his talents filling the media, Zaha made his debut for England in November 2012 when coming off the bench in a friendly international with Sweden. This was despite the fact that he was then playing in English football’s second tier competition.

Following a high-profile (but ultimately unsuccessful) transfer to Manchester United, Zaha went on to make his second, and what now appears to have been his last, appearance for England in another friendly international in August 2013, this time against Scotland.

Whether or not you are of the opinion that England’s newly-minted manger, Gareth Southgate (who earlier this week assumed the role of England manager on a full time basis) should regard changing Zaha’s mind one of his top priorities, the Crystal Palace player is more than entitled to submit his request to FIFA.

The rules governing the eligibility of football players to represent more than one international team are set out in the FIFA Statutes and have previously been explored by Sports Shorts back in September, in the context of Kosovo’s first ever competitive international football match.

By way of recap, the starting point for FIFA’s eligibility rules is that a player is only allowed to represent one international country. However, if a player:

  1. has more than one nationality;
  2. acquires a new nationality; or
  3. is eligible to play for several representative teams due to nationality

that player may, only once, submit a request to FIFA’s Players’ Status Committee  to change the association for which he is eligible to play international matches to the association of another country of which he holds nationality.

Any such request is subject to the following conditions:

  1. The player hasn’t played a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition at “A” international level for his current association, and at the time of his first full or partial appearance in an international match in an official competition for his current association, he already had the nationality of the representative team for which he wishes to play; and
  2. He is not permitted to play for his new association in any competition in which he has already played for his previous association.

Bearing in mind the above, what are the prospects of Zaha’s application to FIFA being granted?

  1. Zaha, who has lived in England since the age of 4, qualifies as having more than one nationality on account of: (a) being born in in Abdijan but having been educated in England for more than 5 years prior to his 18th birthday (that being the minimum number of years stipulated in the Home Nations Agreement entered into between the respective football associations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland); and/or (b) having lived continuously in England for at least 5 years after his 18th birthday; and
  2. Whilst Zaha has represented England on 2 occasions, as noted above, both of those games were friendly internationals, thereby ensuring that he did not take part in an official “A” international level competition. Moreover, at the point Zaha played in those friendlies, he already qualified to play for Ivory Coast by virtue of his place of birth.

Whilst it is impossible to say with 100% certainty whether FIFA will grant Zaha’s request, on the bare facts, he would appear to fall within the exception stipulated in the FIFA Statutes.

Examples of other “high profile” players who have switched national allegiances under the FIFA Statutes include Thiago Motta (who was capped 3 times by for Brazil in matches deemed to be friendlies and who now has 30 caps for Italy) and Diego Costa (who also represented Brazil in 2 friendlies before successfully submitting a request to be deemed eligible to play for Spain).

And nor is this a “modern” phenomenon. Two revered former players of Real Madrid played for different national teams, namely Alfredo di Stefano (Argentina and Spain) and Ferenc Puskás (Hungary and Spain).

After finally succumbing to the pleas of his fellow countryman Didier Drogba, who first expressed his desire for Zaha to represent Ivory Coast over 4 years ago, the Crystal Palace man should soon know whether FIFA will grant his wish.  If they do so, his England career can be neatly summed up by the words of an individual not usually associated with international football, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, who wrote:

the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long

Zaha no doubt hopes that the flame will burn that bit longer for Les Éléphants.

The issue of eligibility in sport is covered in further detail here.