The news this week that Kawasaki Frontale’s Brazilian striker Juninho hopes to gain Japanese citizenship and play for the national team will not have been music to FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s ears.
Exasperated at seeing Brazil-born players naturalized and assimilated into national teams around the world, Blatter launched an angry tirade last year against the “invaders” jeopardizing the international game.
“If we don’t take care about the invaders from Brazil,” he said, “then at the next World Cups, in 2014 and 2018, out of the 32 teams you will still have national teams, but we will have 16 full of Brazilian players.”
Blatter has a point.
Brazil-born players represent countries ranging from Qatar to Croatia, many being awarded citizenship only a few years after setting foot in their new country for the first time.
Midfielder Deco even outlasted his native countrymen at the 2006 World Cup, reaching the last four with his adopted Portugal while Brazil went crashing out in the quarterfinals.
Juninho would not be the first Brazilian player to line up for Japan either. Of the current squad, both Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex were born in South America, following the path of striker Wagner Lopes in the 1990s.
The reason for Brazil’s global presence is simple. The world’s greatest soccer nation exports a staggering amount of players each year, and in 2007 alone a record 1,252 were transferred abroad.
Household names like Kaka and Ronaldinho adorn Europe’s biggest teams, but countries as far-flung as Uzbekistan, Syria and New Zealand all feature Brazilians in their domestic leagues.
With such a huge diaspora competing for limited places on Brazil’s national team, it is understandable that many feel they would have a better chance throwing their lot in elsewhere.
When midfielder Marcos Senna took up Spanish citizenship before the last World Cup, he freely admitted this played a big part in his decision.
“In Brazil there are so many good players to choose from,” he said. “If one gets injured, there’s another ready to replace him who’s just as good.”
This surely defeats the purpose of international soccer.
Much has been made of the influx of foreign players into club teams around the world, but clubs represent where players live, not where they come from.
If Michael Essien had no option but to play for his local team in Ghana, he would be denied the chance to make a far more comfortable life for himself in London with Chelsea.
Club soccer is the bread and butter of a player’s existence, providing money and security, while the international game is about representing one’s country.
The issue of nationality is itself, however, far from cut and dried.
Many players are of mixed descent, and feel torn between the land of their birth and the land of their parents. It is not for soccer fans to decide how a German-born Turk or a French-born Arab should identify themselves.
There are also cases of refugees or asylum-seeking players, such as France’s Rio Mavuba, born on a boat off the coast of Angola during that country’s civil war.
Juninho, on the other hand, arrived in Japan in 2003 with no previous ties to the country through birth or blood. At 30 years old, his chance to play international soccer is ebbing away, and the World Cup is just two years around the corner.
Juninho is certainly good enough to play for Japan. He was the J. League’s top scorer last year, and has scored 58 goals in 92 games since arriving in 2003.
He also clearly has great affection for the country, and says he wants to spend the rest of his life in Japan with his family.
JFA chief Saburo Kawabuchi has welcomed the move, saying he will do as much as possible to help the striker achieve his goal.
But the JFA is in no position to decide. Juninho’s application will be dealt with by the Japanese government, and if the case of Salomon Kalou is anything to go by, he may be out of luck.
Kalou, born in Cote d’Ivoire but at the time a player for Feyenoord in the Netherlands, applied for Dutch citizenship with the hope of playing in the 2006 World Cup.
Despite the wave of support from a Dutch public keen to see the live-wire striker represent their country, Kalou’s application was turned down by Minister for Immigration and Integration Rita Verdonk, who refused to fast-track the player into citizenship.
If Juninho is to gain Japanese citizenship, he will be considered as a person first, and an asset to the national soccer team second.