Ever since its foundation, FIFA has been grappling with the thorny issues of nationality, country definition and player status. The debates have been fuelled down the years by all kinds of curious and challenging cases, proving that these were divisive topics long before the Bosman ruling or the recent amendment of Article 15. As part of FIFA's Centennial celebrations, FIFA.com serves up a series of strange and seminal anecdotes from the history of football's world governing body.
People tend to point to the Bosman ruling of December 1995 as the time when the question of foreign players really started to exercise mouths and minds. In reality though, FIFA has been trying to resolve this particular conundrum almost since its inception. In the early days, the argument was between advocates of amateurism and proponents of professionalism and exchanges were often very bitter, because though Great Britain was quick to institute a professional league, the rest of the world was much more hesitant.
Even the Football Association was initially opposed to professionalism, but when most of its clubs threatened to form a break-away league, they were forced to relent. The world's first professional football league thus came into being way back in 1885. The British remained unique until the 1920s, when Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary followed suit. France, Spain, and Italy did likewise over the course of the following decade, but many other countries had to take their own peculiar path to professionalism.
Eldorado in Colombia
Football was, of course, not high on the European agenda during World War II, but in South America it really gained ground during that period. Argentina and Uruguay both set up professional leagues, and the best players were soon fêted as stars. By 1948, Argentine side Velez Sarsfield were drawing enormous crowds on a trip to play Sante Fe in Colombia, where football was proving so popular that a group of entrepreneurs soon decided to create a professional league. They dubbed the new league of ten teams the Dimayor (Mayor Division), and it was an immediate success.
It was not long before clubs eager to entice more fans hit on the idea of recruiting stars from beyond their own borders. With the Argentine and Uruguayan leagues engulfed by economic problems, the path was clear for Colombian clubs to come in with bids that could scarcely be refused. The first Argentine superstar to sign for a Colombian club was Adolfo Pedernera, who was lured by Millionarios de Bogota. More than 50 of his compatriots made a similar journey within the following week, all on handsome contracts and none requiring a transfer fee. The Dimayor imposed no restrictions on the number of foreigners.
Confrontation loomed, however, because the Bogota league was not approved by the Colombian Football Federation, which was based in Barranquilla. The Dimayor was ejected from the national bodies, but this expulsion had the very opposite effect to the one intended. Rather than abandon its policy of anarchic recruitment from abroad, the Dimayor expanded even faster and within two years there were some 320 foreigners playing in it. The country's most successful club during this period was Millionarios, whose famous "ballet azul" (blue ballet) playing-style was heavily influenced by Argentine football. Then again, that was hardly surprising considering the team featured imports such as Pedernera, Alfredo Di Stefano, and Nestor Rossi.
Elsewhere in Colombia, Independiente de Medellin were nick-named "Danza del Sol" (Sun dance) as a tribute to the 12 Peruvian players in their squad, while most of the playing staff of Deportivo Samarios de Santa Marta was made up of 15 exiled Hungarians. Every city had a community of expatriate footballers: the Uruguayans were mainly in Cucuta, the Brazilians in Barranquilla, the Peruvians in Cali, the English in Santa Fé, and Costa Ricans and Argentines in Bogota. The Dimayor was relentless in its efforts to make the game more attractive and took many innovative steps, such as employing professional English referees, putting numbers on jerseys, and allowing two substitutions. Hostilities erupted, however, when the clubs started to refuse to release players for international matches. In 1951, FIFA stepped in to act as a mediator and help resolve the problem; as a result, the professional league rejoined the Colombia Federation.
Lazlo Kubala - international man of mystery!
Lazlo Kubala was a Czech international. After moving to Hungary, he became a Hungarian international. In 1949, he fled Hungary illegally and went to Italy before eventually settling in Spain, where he signed a contract with the mighty FC Barcelona. Then he became a Spaniard. The Hungarian Federation demanded that he be suspended, but the Catalan club, supported by the Spanish government, refused to accept this suspension on the grounds that Kubala was a political refugee. Faced with what had become a highly politicised issue, FIFA found itself in a tricky situation and, in the end, ceded. This created some curious situations, such as in 1953 when Kubala lined out for a FIFA selection in a gala match against England but was not allowed to play for Spain in the qualifiers for the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™.
Many other players continued to sneak out of Hungary, undeterred by the controversy surrounding Kubala. In 1956, when the Red Army rolled into Budapest, some 240 players, including the entire Honved Budapest team, fled the country to ply their trade wherever they could get a deal. Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, and Zoltan Czibor, who had been finalists at the FIFA World Cup in Switzerland, were among those to choose exile. FIFA was again called on to act, and this time took a decisive measure to stem the flow. The Honved players were each suspended for two years, and the club's reign as the most feared team in Europe was at an end.
Amateur football, professional boxing
At the end of the 1950s, an Australian venture dragged up memories of the Dimayor in Colombia. An independent league was set up and began hiring players from all over the place without any transfer formalities whatsoever. Dutchmen, Israelis, and Austrian were among those to head down under, but FIFA had no intention of allowing the anarchy to take root and promptly suspended the Australian Football Association until such time as the situation was resolved. FIFA's hard line paid off, as one year later the Australians had set their house in order.
Meanwhile, the Thai Association got in touch with FIFA with some novel requests for advice: they wanted to know if an amateur footballer who had fought as a professional boxer could still be considered an amateur; and were equally unsure about the status of an amateur footballer who had been paid to perform in a movie. FIFA just wished that all inquiries on the nationality and status issues were as trivial as this!
The United States had bigger issues to contend with, since a range of professional leagues unaffiliated to the national association had been operating in the country since the 1920s. Not only were these leagues ignoring regulations governing transfers of foreign players, they were also making changes to the Laws of the Game. There were proposals to widen the goals, to draw off-side lines across the pitch, and to increase the number of substitutions. All kinds of stunts were tried in America right up until 1990, when the USA Football Association finally created a professional league
Massive migrations between associations in 2000
The issue of professionalism may not be so divisive today, but debates over foreign players and nationality are still very much alive. By allowing European clubs to employ an unlimited number of European Union nationals, the Bosman ruling in 1995 had a major impact. In addition to that ruling, another change is that each association is now free to decide how many non-EU players its clubs can sign, and in many cases associations have decided against imposing any limitations at all. It comes as no surprise then, to learn that the 2000 season saw almost 15,000 men and women being transferred from clubs belonging to one association to clubs belonging to another association in another country.
This movement has enabled some clubs to give themselves exotic makeovers. Belgian side Beveren, for example, have taken to fielding up to 10 Ivorian players at any one time, and it is no longer uncommon for an English team to trot out onto the pitch without a single Englishman in its ranks. The thorniest issue of the moment relates to which countries footballers are allowed to play for. FIFA recently determined that players who live in a country where they have nationality but originate from another may, on certain conditions, play for their country of origin.
Then there is the recent case of Qatar, who offered financial incentives to foreign players to play for the Qatari national team. Again, FIFA had to stand firm to protect the game and avoid opening the floodgates to all kinds of excesses. Firmness and mediation: these two words nicely sum up the activities of football's world governing body over the last 100 years.
This article is based on the book "FIFA 1904-2004, The football century". Three years ago, four widely-respected historians (Pierre Lanfranchi, Christiane Eisenberg, Tony Mason, and Alfred Wahl) were entrusted with task of compiling a book that would cover FIFA's foundation, the creation of the Laws of the Game, the FIFA World Cup, the emergence of the FIFA Women's World Cup, and an array of other topics from the past 100 years of football. The fruit of their research is now available in most bookshops. Produced in all four of FIFA's official languages (English, French, German, and Spanish), it can also be ordered from the following addresses:
· by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for the English edition
· www.cherche-midi.com for the French edition
· www.marca.es for the Spanish edition