Has the Naturalization of International Footballers Gone Too Far?

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Has the Naturalization of International Footballers Gone Too Far?
(Photo by Alexandr Wilf/Epsilon/Getty Images)

In the modern era of football, the bronze doors of opportunity are open to players from all over the world. You see it constantly.

Brazilians playing in Russia. Greeks playing in England. Koreans playing in France. Cameroonians playing in Holland. You get the point.

But while the opportunities for club football are practically endless—though many national leagues enforce a limit on foreign players—international competition is a different beast altogether.

Historically, it was an incredibly simple concept. Play for the country that brought you into the world or don't play at all. It was a tremendous honour, the ability to represent your country with pride. The jersey and flag were sacred symbols that needed to be defended at all cost.

But in recent times, things have changed. Naturalization has brought a new element to the international stage.

While nearly every country has different regulations and requirements for naturalization, the motives are identical in every situation. Smaller nations or countries that have a glaring weakness to their roster now look to naturalization to fill certain holes.

Marco Senna for Spain. Mehmet Aurelio for Turkey. Eduardo for Croatia. Cacao for Germany. All four play an important role on their respective teams and all four share a bond, as each was born nowhere near Madrid, Istanbul, Zagreb, or Berlin respectively.

At first glance, they are all Brazilians. A common trend now, but certainly not the only one. Many players of African descent have found their way into assorted national teams.

Indeed, a Ghanaian-German defender, Jerome Boateng, is scheduled to make his international debut for Germany this weekend in a crucial showdown in Moscow.

But in some cases, the naturalization is easy.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic shares a Bosnian and Croatian background, but represents Sweden. Although his parents were anything but Swedish, he has lived in Malmo for the majority of his life and there was little doubt which colors he would wear.

However, the question remains, should naturalization be allowed? And to what extent is it too much?

That question has no answer in Moscow at the moment.

Young Brazilian-born striker Welliton Soares de Morais, more affectionately known as simply Welliton, has played the majority of his professional career with one of the most tradition-laden clubs in Russian history, Spartak Moscow.

Since joining Spartak in the summer of 2007, Welliton has blossomed into one of the finest strikers in the Russian Premier League. He has scored 16 goals in 23 matches to lead Spartak to second place in the table, good enough for a Champions League berth in 2010 if they should hang on.

Hi ho Silver!

But honestly, third place would get them in as well. Not like that's what Welliton and company are shooting for.

Back in 2007, Welliton didn't exactly arrive in Moscow with trumpets blaring. His decision to wear the No. 11 shirt made him an unpopular man with the fans, as the same number was worn by Spartak hero Andrey Tikhonov during the 1990s.

While he has grown on many fans since then, there are others who will never be impressed by the 22-year-old Brazilian.

On the eve of one of the most important matches in Russian football history, Welliton found a way to stir the pot and add another thought to the already cluttered brains of Guus Hiddink and his coaching staff.

"If I get the offer, I'd play for Russia," said Welliton during an interview with Sovietsky Sports.

Continuing on, he added "The [Brazil] national team coaches only pay attention to those playing in the top clubs, but I played for little-known Goias and had no chance of being scouted."

The interesting part was the timing. Recently, his fellow Brazilian teammate for Spartak, Alex, received a call-up to the Brazilian team for the qualifiers against Bolivia and Venezuela.

Welliton's desire to play on an international stage is clear, but when is naturalization too much? Russia have never fielded a naturalized player in over 80 years of competition. And there is no need for an additional striker, as the team features players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko, Alexander Kerzhakov, and Pavel Pogrebnyak.

While Welliton's Russian is good enough to spit out "Dobriy den! Kak dela?", he is hardly fluent in the language spoken by his comrades.

Most Russian fans are divided on the issue. While half the supporters agree that nationalization shouldn't happen because that is what club football is for, others feel that if others can do it and bolster their roster, why can't we?

So while the argument continues, the facts will remain the same.

Germany will come to Moscow most likely fielding a team with half the players coming from a different ethnic background. Russia will field a team of 11 born and bred Russians.

Should naturalization be acceptable for international football?

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