On the surface, only 24 nations are represented at the FIFA World Youth Championships Netherlands 2005, bringing with them their fans, their chants, their colours and their native rhythms to liven up the streets of Holland. But in a world where borders have less and less meaning and people move around more freely than ever, this is by no means the whole story. A quick scratch of the surface reveals a veritable patchwork of nationalities and backgrounds at the finals.
The country that arguably has the oldest claim to the term "melting pot" is the USA. Two of their standout players weren't born in the States: midfield maestro Benny Feilhaber is a native of Rio de Janeiro, while Freddy Adu was born in Ghana. Looking down the player roster, surnames like Nguyen, Kartunen, Kljestan, Ianni and Ochoa suggest roots that are all over Europe, Asia, and beyond.
The two other New World countries at the finals, Australia and Canada, are also predictably varied. Australia have a large preponderance of names originating from former Yugoslavia, led by Spase Dilevski who has Macedonian roots. As for the Canadians, no fewer than three of their players (Josh Wagenaar, Marcel De Jong, and Brad Peetoom) have unmistakably Dutch names.
A new 'old' continent
What stands out, though, is that European countries like Switzerland, Germany and hosts the Netherlands are enthusiastically getting in on the act. The Netherlands have long had a predilection for Surinam-based talent, and indeed there's almost an entire team's worth of players from that former colony on this squad - most of them regulars. Hedwiges Maduro, by the way, is not among them: he's from Aruba, in the Dutch Antilles. But this is by no means the long and short of it. First round standout Quincy Owusu Abeyie is, like Freddy Adu, of Ghanaian parentage, though the Dutch winger was born in Amsterdam.
Collins John was born in Liberia, while Haris Medunjanin is a refugee from Sarajevo. As for Ibrahim Afellay, whose tournament has unfortunately ended with an ankle injury, he had the choice of playing for Holland or for Morocco.
Germany has tended to be more reliably Teutonic, but they too are getting an infusion of African talent. Sahr Senesie has roots in Sierra Leone, while Marvin Matip has a Cameroonian father and a German mother. In addition, playmaker Michael Delura is of Polish descent, while Daniyel Cimen traces his lineage to Turkey.
Two of the greatest talents on the Swiss squad also trace their ancestors to the mother continent: Johan Djourou comes from Cote d'Ivoire, while Guilherme Afonso is from Angola. Henry Siqueira has a Brazilian passport in addition to his Swiss one, Ferhat Cokmus too comes from Turkey, and Blerim Dzemaili is another player of Macedonian extraction. And then of course there's Philippe Senderos, born in Geneva to a Serbian mother and a Spanish father.
In fact, even in East Asia, not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think melting pot, we can find an exponent of the new footballing globalism. He carries the decidedly un-Japanese name of Robert Cullen, and has a Northern Irish father.
At the other side of the equation, we find the nations that act as providers of talent to other countries, most notably Morocco and Turkey. Starting with Morocco, Holland's Afellay is probably the player with the highest profile in this championship who got to choose his country. A fair number of players on the Moroccan squad faced the same choice. Nabil El Zhar and Ahmed Kantari decided against playing for France, while Rachid Tiberkanine, who plies his trade with Ajax of Amsterdam, was actually born in Antwerp, Belgium and had the choice to play for his native country.
Another home favourite, Karim El Ahmadi, faced the same dilemma as Afellay but chose the other option. In a marked contrast with Morocco, Turkey field only one player based outside of Turkey, Bayer Leverkusen's Sezer Ozturk, while players with Turkish ancestors can be found on the teams of Germany and Switzerland.
Even ethnicity isn't the whole of the story. As young as they are, many of the players participating in the FIFA World Youth Championship have already transferred outside of their home country, and some have even had their formative years abroad.
Sizable portions of the Australian team and Benin teams are based in England and France, respectively. The ultimate globetrotters, though, are the Canadians: only three of them are based in Canada. If you include the seven playing in the US and one unaffiliated player, it is still the smallest majority possible who have stayed close to home. Among the absent countries, England especially makes its mark: Arsenal alone have four players in the field, with Holland's Owusu Abeyie, Spain's Cesc Fabregas, and Switzerland's Djourou and Senderos. Not to be outdone, Manchester United have Dong Fangzhuo of China, and Jonathan Spector of the USA.
Holland is home not only to the tournament, but also to a Honduran, two Moroccans, a Brazilian, a Swiss, and two Canadians. And of course there is one of the prominent players of the tournament, Lionel Messi of Argentina, who at the tender age of 17 has already been with Barcelona of Spain for five years.
No other game is played in as many countries around the world as football, the "beautiful game" as it is also known. Now, maybe it's about time to give it another nickname: the global game.