3701471By Jeremy B. Love, Immigration Attorney
June 20, 2014

While watching the group matches during this year’s World Cup, it’s easy to notice the number of players who had the option to play for different national teams.

The decisions of some of the best players in the World clearly affected the teams they chose and, of course, the teams they didn’t. At the same time, the composition of the teams reflects the immigration policies of each country.


Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Germany’s Mesut Ozil, Portugal’s Bruno Alves, Spain’s Diego Costa and even the US’ Tim Howard could have chosen to don the colors of other nations.

According to FIFA regulations, a player can represent the nation in which he was born, or in which his parents or grandparents were born, or a country he has lived in for at least five years after the age of 18. A player can even switch and play for a different national team, as did US defender Fabian Johnson, but just one time in his career.

Looking at the US’ team, over half of the 23-man roster was born in a different country or their parents immigrated to the US.  Striker Jozy Altidore’s parents were born in Haiti.  The man who replaced Altidore when he pulled a hamstring against Ghana, Aron Johannsson, was born in Mobile, AL to parents from Iceland.

The American midfield would look much different without immigration as well as Jermaine Jones was born in Germany, Mix Diskerud immigrated to the US from Norway and Alejandro Bedoya’s father is Colombian.

Without German-born John Brooks, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson, the defense would have quite a few more holes in it. Additionally, Omar Gonzalez’s parents were born in Mexico. And without immigration, the US would be missing keepers Tim Howard, whose mother is Hungarian, and Nick Rimando, who is of Filipino and Mexican descent.

As for Mexico’s National team, defenders Miguel Ponce and Isaac Brizuela were born in California, but chose to honor their Mexican heritage and play for El Tri.

But the US and Mexico are not the only national soccer teams that depend heavily on immigrant players.  France, Germany and Portugal also benefit substantially from players who immigrated or whose parents immigrated.

Many of the players who play for European national teams live in countries that were former colonies of those European countries.  Similarly, many players born outside of Europe choose to play for a European national team where they have been living for more than five years pursuing their club career or for the country from which their family immigrated. 

The roster of the French national team includes players who immigrated from Angola, Senegal, Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  At the same time, the roster of Algeria, a former French colony, consists of 23 players born in France.

Much media attention has been paid to Brazilian-born Diego Costa, who has resided in Spain to further his club career with Atletico Madrid, for choosing to play for the Spanish national team as it seeks to advance in the World Cup.

While some players obtain European passports during their club careers, they must chose between representing their ancestral homes, such as Brazilian-born Thiago Motta and Argentine-born Gabriel Paletta who play for Italy or their new homes, such as Costa.  In the case of Motta and Paletta, both originally played for the countries in which they were born, but later switched to play for the Azzurri.

Even fans of several countries who do not have many immigrants playing for their national teams, can point to their immigration policies to explain the make up of their national roster. 

South Korea and Russia, for example, have very strict immigration policies that make it very difficult to obtain citizenship.  As such, their national teams do not take advantage of the pro-immigration policies such as World Cup contenders Germany, Netherlands, France, and Italy.

Dangerous political situations or natural disasters in certain countries led several World Cup players’ families to move elsewhere. Ghana would have been an even more difficult draw for the US had Jerome Boateng (Germany), Balotelli (Italy) and Danny Welbeck (England) chosen to play Ghana.

Brazil is already a favorite to win this year’s cup, but imagine if Eduardo Alves da Silva and Jorge Sammir Cruz Campos, who play for Croatia, or Pepe and Bruno Alves, who chose Portugal, had instead played for the home team.

The composition of the teams in the World Cup is a mirror that reflects not just our immigration policies, but also, our national identity.