When Fernando Amorebieta stepped on to the pitch for his Fulham debut against West Bromwich Albion, the Venezuelan defender wrote his name into the Premier League history books before he had even kicked a ball. Twenty-one years after the competition's inception, the Vinotinto star ensured 100 different nations from outside the United Kingdom have been represented – a milestone that marks a rapid progression for the English top flight over two decades.
Of the century, 14 have produced just one representative in the division, namely Albania, Angola, Curacao, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Gabon, Guadeloupe, Kenya, Lithuania, Montserrat, Oman, Pakistan, Seychelles and Venezuela.
To mark this particular record, FIFA.com decided to catch up with four of these players to ask them what it was like representing their country in a global arena such as the Premier League, what they feel the impact of having such a diversity of players has done for the league, and where they think it will go.
Omani, Estonian pride
Oman's Ali Al Habsi became a well-known face between the sticks for both Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers in England, and since making his debut in the north-west of the country, he's conscious of the impact it has had 6,000km away.
“It’s something special, but not for me – for my country," he explained passionately. "That’s more important. I love it when commentators call me ‘the man from Oman’. It's great for the country to have that recognition and it’s great for me to be helping to bring that about. When I first arrived, no-one spoke about Oman and now, through football, people are asking me about the country, following the country’s matches, particularly in World Cup qualifying, and even going on holiday there! That’s wonderful, I feel so proud.”
Fellow goalkeeper Mart Poom, who hails from Estonia, recalls similar feelings when he made his bow for Derby County in a thrilling 3-2 win at Old Trafford.
“The game was shown on TV and of course it was a big story back home that I got a contract with Derby County in the Premier League and was playing against Manchester United,” said the former international, who now runs the Mart Poom Football School back in his homeland.
“It's probably the most popular league in the world and everybody dreams of playing there. Of course I'm very proud to have been the only Estonian to have played in the Premier League, it's a great honour.”
Accompanying the gratification of being the sole ambassador for your nation is also the knowledge that you are in a position of responsibility, both as reflection of your people to those watching, and a role model to those you represent.
When I first arrived, no-one spoke about Oman and now, through football, people are asking me about the country, following the country’s matches and even going on holiday there! I feel so proud.
Poom recalls the desire he had to try to prove his worth after being presented with the opportunity to shine on such a global platform.
“I always had in the back of my mind that I was representing Estonia, and I was proud, coming from a small country,” he said. “But I also felt I had to work hard and push myself every day having been given this chance to play in England.”
Al Habsi also admits feeling the heat from home: “Every day I try to become a little better for my family and my country. It does bring about a bit of pressure, but in a nice way.”
'The future is Asia'
Former Fulham defender and Pakistan international Zesh Rehman, meanwhile, having grown up in England, has seen his status as a something he must respect.
“It's an honour and a privilege, but at the same time, a responsibility," he explained. "I'm proud about what I have achieved in the game, but more importantly it's trying to be seen as the right role model as I know that kids from several backgrounds look up to me.”
Rehman also believes the multi-cultural nature of the Premier League is having its impact both on and off the pitch as well.
“Football is such a widely-watched game, and is so powerful as a vehicle for change because it reaches so many different people,” he said. “It makes sense to welcome these different backgrounds and cultures with open arms because it will have a huge impact beyond the pitch and beyond the country they are playing in, particularly in regards to the Premier League.
“[At Fulham] we had players from all over and it is probably the most multi-cultural league in the world. It helps raise awareness of people's different cultures and celebrate those differences, as opposed to seeing it as a threat."
From the other side of that equation, Al Habsi is certain that the presence of a range of backgrounds and religions eased his arrival at Bolton: “It does make things easier. If you have your own culture around you, you settle quicker, and that’s what I found in England.”
By the time the Qatar World Cup comes around, I really do believe that people will see the future is Asia.
Ruel Fox, who scored on the opening day of the first-ever Premier League season for Norwich City, represented Montserrat – where both his parents hailed from – towards the back end of his career having spent time coaching the island nation.
Reflecting on the opportunity he said: “I thought, 'I'm never going to get another chance to represent my family's country', so I thought, 'Why not?'. It was now or never. It was quite emotional to be able to say I've been and played for my country.”
Looking at today, where less than a third of the players in the division are English, Fox noted the drastic change that the league has gone through since it began: “I love seeing players from different backgrounds and cultures playing here, it's great, as long as it enhances the league.”
The important thing, he feels, is ensuring it does not cut off the access route for local young players: “It's just getting the balance right. Quality breeds quality, but young players aren't going to learn from the likes of Thierry Henry and David Ginola if they are playing on loan for lower-league teams.”
Rehman, who away from the pitch also runs the Zesh Rehman Foundation, expects the number of nations to expand beyond 100. Having played in the likes of Thailand and Hong Kong, he believes Asia has a lot of potential.
“I think the next two biggest regions that people should be keeping an eye on are south-east Asia – Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, who are producing some very good players who are so passionate for the game – and then south Asia in terms of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan as they are still a little way behind.
“However, having recently just played in Nepal in front of 30,000 fans, the passion, the energy and love for the game is definitely there. I'm sure in the future we will see players starting to appear at good levels across Europe.”
It could be in as little as eight years in Rehman's eyes, when football's showpiece event descends on the Middle East for the first time in 2022, that the pattern could be emerging: “By the time the Qatar World Cup comes around, I really do believe that people will see the future is Asia.”