National team eligibility is a minefield for players and federations but FIFA’s reluctance to cede ground to those seeking a more liberal interpretation of the rules is understandable.
Long gone are the days when very few players had the opportunity of playing for a second country. Initially it was mostly South Americans, ‘doubling up’ in Italy and Spain.
Simultaneously, European colonial powers helped themselves to ‘their own’ African talents: Eusebio, nine-goal top-scorer for Portugal in the 1966 World Cup, came from Mozambique, while Just Fontaine, who ran up an all-time record 13 goals for France in 1958 was born and brought up in Morocco.
A jet-age travel revolution which fuelled ‘social migration’ opened the way for a binationality revolution. One aspect of the fall-out was the French coaching squabble about the rights and wrongs of developing youngsters who then preferred to play, not for France, but for the countries of their African heritage.
Echoes are to be found in the Mourad case. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, of Syrian parents, he was brought up in Sweden and eventually signed with IFK Gothenburg.
In January 2005 he was named in Sweden’s national team squad for a short close-season trip to the United States. Mourad played all of a 1-1 draw with South Korea at the Home Depot Center in Carson and the last 13 minutes of 0-0 draw with Mexico in San Diego.
Mourad’s club career became increasingly erratic. He had a short loan spell in Italy with Brescia then spells in Holland with Willem II, in Norway with Tromso and in Portugal with Portimonense. Early this year he moved to Syria – for the first time – with Mes Kerman.
On June 29 Mourad made his Syria debut in a friendly against Iraq. He then appeared as a substitute in both the World Cup qualifiers against Tajikistan, scoring in the first game of a 6-1 aggregate success. Those were the two games which prompted FIFA to expel Syria and reinstate Tajikistan.
Federation president Farouk Seriya complained – all to well aware of international concern over Syrian civil unrest – that “the decision was politicised” and would be challenged in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Mourad fulfilled several conditions for a nation swap. Firstly, his parents were Syrian-born; secondly, he did not play in a competitive match for Sweden; and, thirdly, though he had not played for Sweden in two friendlies, he already had the Syria option through his parents’ origin.
However, the core of the issue is not his right to play for the Syrians but their failure to check in with FIFA first. Article 8 (3) of FIFA Statutes on eligibility says a “written, substantiated request” must be put to the FIFA players’ status committee for a decision.
Syria appear to be paying the price not for some dastardly international political plot but for the simple failure of Seriya and Co to read the rules.
A costly own goal indeed.