Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem is currently ineligible to play for the United States and will be for at least five more years, FIFA rules state, but US Soccer could receive an exception for him to play earlier.
When the German-born, Maryland-raised Zelalem acquired United States citizenship last month in Washington, most American soccer observers believed it paved the way for him to immediately represent the U.S. in international competition.
Turns out it didn’t.
Zelalem is a naturalized American citizen, as opposed to becoming one through lineage or birthright. His parents and his grandparents were also born overseas, meaning he’s subject to a little-known stipulation in FIFA’s statutes that would require him to live in the U.S. for five years from Jan. 26, his 18th birthday, before suiting up for the Yanks in official matches.
And since the playmaking midfielder — who lived in Maryland between 2006 and 2013, when he moved to London to join the Gunners — isn’t about to leave Europe any time soon, meeting that requirement as it’s written would appear to be non-starter.
But the U.S. Soccer Federation appears to have some recourse when it comes to Zelalem, as FIFA can and does grant exceptions to players who are able to show that their naturalization didn’t violate the spirit of the law.
And since Zelalem lived and attended school in the U.S. long before being spotted by an Arsenal scout, getting the green light could end up being a mere formality.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati doesn’t seem worried.
“We’re going through the FIFA process and hope to have Gedion eligible by March or April,” said Gulati, who also sits on FIFA’s executive committee, told ESPN FC on Monday. “We don’t expect any issues.”
For now, though, Zelalem can’t play for the U.S., and his eligibility isn’t quite the forgone conclusion it originally appeared to be.
On the surface, FIFA’s rule is reasonable: It was put in place to prevent a country from recruiting and naturalizing talented foreigners for the sole purpose of strengthening its national team — a practice that has recently become popular in Qatar, for example. But the rule has also had the unintended consequence of impacting players from around the world whose acquisition of a new nationality had nothing to do with soccer.
For instance, a player who was naturalized as an infant or young child, long before showing any athletic aptitude, could in theory be prevented or at least delayed from playing for the only country they’ve ever known.
Zelalem isn’t the only American player the rule is currently affecting. Canadian-born FC Dallas forward Tesho Akindele, who grew up in Colorado and became a U.S. citizen last year, can’t play for the Americans in this week’s friendly against Chile for the same reason. Akindele will automatically become eligible for the U.S. when he turns 23 in March, when he will have fulfilled the five-year residency requirement.