Should Malaysia naturalise players?

The upcoming exhibition match between Malaysia XI and Tottenham Hotspur has given Dez Corkhill food for thought about featuring foreign-born players in a national team...

If, as anticipated, Paulo Rangel lines up for Malaysia XI against Tottenham in the AIA Cup on May 27th, we may just be getting a glimpse of the future of non-Malaysian players donning the national colours. There’s been speculation that Malaysia might be considering going down the route of naturalisation – or welcoming players who qualify for the nation via residency. Rangel’s name crops up whenever the issue is discussed.

The naturalisation of some of the league’s star players has been mooted as one way to improve the national team. After all, it has worked for others and, with Malaysia dropping down to 166th in the FIFA World Rankings, it might be tempting to start considering whether the likes of Rangel or Pahang’s Nigerian-born Dickson Nwakaeme should be given the opportunity to play for the Harimau Malaya, especially when both of them have expressed an interest in it.

Nwakaeme previously shared this picture with his fans

FIFA’s residential ruling amended in 2008 states that if a player has been resident in a country for five years beyond his 18th birthday, he can play international football for his adopted country. Over the Causeway, English-born John Wilkinson, Australian citizen Aleksandar Duric, Bosnian Mustafic Fahrudin and the Nigerian trio of Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir and Itimi Dickson all came to Singapore to play football. They ended up being offered citizenship and played significant roles in helping Singapore to three ASEAN Championship triumphs between 2004 and 2012.

And many other nations have used the residency rule to their advantage. Chelsea’s Brazilian born-and-bred Diego Costa played international football for Brazil in 2013 before donning the national colours of Spain a year later, having fulfilled the required five years in a country to gain residency status, while Belgian winger Adnan Januzaj was once linked with an international call-up for England. As one might argue, those who don’t use the rules to their maximum are at a disadvantage.

So, according to the residential ruling, Rangel is approaching the halfway mark of being eligible of representing Malaysia. In 2017, he would be just 33 years old and still capable of being the scourge of many defences and a focal point for the national team. However, to me, with all due respect to Rangel for being a wonderful and successful player to Perak, Selangor and now Terengganu, this is administrative simulation, a.k.a. cheating.

Rangel (yellow bib) training with the local players at Wisma FAM

With copious apologies in particular to Duric and Wilkinson, who I know have worked ferociously hard and helped Singaporean football, the residential rule is akin to blood doping. It is effectively importing blood that is not yours to begin with. It doesn’t break any current rules, but it certainly isn’t within the spirit of fair play. Football, or any kind of sports, is supposed to be “our best” against “their best”, and may the best team win. It might be an old-fashioned concept, but it is one worth clinging to. But inexorably over the last 50 years, it has lost that reason for being.

In my view, it is very different from the scenario of being a player who has parents from two nations. After all, there is a true link between that player and both countries. The Philippines were the first in this region to start taking advantage of the product of globalisation, where families from the region move elsewhere. James and Phil Younghusband are a great example of how the “returning” players can benefit a country’s football fortunes.

Malaysia were slow off the mark in using this ruling to their advantage until Junior Eldstal was unearthed by the enterprising Scott Ollerenshaw, and was successfully introduced to Malaysian football from the lower levels of the English football pyramid. Brendan Gan and Matthew Davies soon followed, while the likes of Daniel Ting, Darren Lok and Dion Cools might be returning "home" as well.

Players like Eldstal and Gan came "home" in recent years

Similarly, there can surely be no objection if a player has been in a country since his formative years and been educated and trained in that nation to represent the country of his upbringing – Singapore’s Daniel Bennett and Malaysian-born Ruzaini Zainal fall into this category. There is tacit awareness and actual input into a country of education. The age of integration is a moot point, but if a young player has been in a country from a young age, it means he has roots in that nation. But even that is open to interpretation because there will be some who push the rules to the limit.

Of Qatar’s 23-man squad that went to January’s Asia Cup in Australia, ten were not born in Qatar. Senegal, Congo, Ghana, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait and France were the origins of more than one third of the squad. Many of these players are alumni of the ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, but are they truly representative of Qatar? Similarly, Hong Kong’s recent call for permanent residents to be eligible to play international football for the small island is, again, a situation that pushes the barriers too far. This is why the rules must be tightened.

The reason rules were brought in in the first place is that historically, representing your nation became less straightforward than it might have been. Hungarian-born legend Ferenc Puskas played for both Hungary and Spain, whilst the great Alfredo di Stefano represented Argentina, Spain and, unofficially, Colombia.

Di Stefano and Puskas

In the UK, it’s particularly strange as the existence of the Four Nations as separate entities that make up the sovereign state blurs the line hugely. And the Republic of Ireland took massive advantage of a rule that enabled players with a grand-parental link to be enough to represent the nation. It was made a mockery when London born-and-bred Tony Cascarino was found not to have been eligible for Ireland (Eire) after all. And the recent scenario of Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish “feeling” Irish despite being born and brought up in Birmingham to two English-born parents merely brings the issue into focus once more.

In the end, international sports are supposed to be about representing your country of birth. Obviously there will be blurred lines, but we seem to be always pushing at the edges of “reasonableness” to improve chances of winning. I will always maintain that the sport – particularly your football team – is there to represent something: a town, a city or a country.

Thus far, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has held the moral high ground in refusing to contemplate naturalisation, and rightly so. Sports are supposed to be the best you can do, not the best you can buy or import. I strongly believe this is worth preserving, even if that means we do not get to see one of the best strikers in the M-League play for the Harimau Malaya.