Football column: Shifting allegiances

A Brazilian-born player is the subject of a cross-border controversy as he suits up for the Spanish national team

Ricardo Ordonez/Reuters
Diego Costa

If you ask most Brazilian boys what they want to be when they grow up, the response will almost always be the same: a football player. For Brazilian players, the idea of donning a canary-yellow national strip, taking the field for their country and becoming a star striker is the stuff of dreams. Being among those chosen for the national squad is just about the highest honour a footballer can receive.

This is especially true here, given that the Brazilian team have won more titles than any other in the world. Surely playing for the side would seem like the natural choice for any player. But not always. Diego Costa, the 25-year-old, Brazilian-born, recently naturalised Spaniard and striker for Atlético Madrid, has hit the headlines for renouncing Brazil, choosing instead to play for the Fúria (Fury), as the Spanish national team is known.

Despite having played for Brazil back in March in two friendly matches – against Italy and Russia – Costa wasn’t picked for the side during the FIFA Confederations Cup and subsequently began to show interest in joining his new home’s national team; the Royal Spanish Football Federation even petitioned FIFA for his membership. Aware of his indecision, the Brazilian coach Felipão opted to play him for the Brazilian team’s recent friendlies against Chile and Honduras. But despite his inclusion, Costa announced his exit plans.

Odd as it might seem, it’s not the first time that a national switch has happened. The forward nicknamed Mazzola, who was a champion alongside Pelé, Garrincha and company during the 1958 World Cup, played again in 1962 for Italy under his birth name, Altafini. At that time, the Brazilian team refused players who played for foreign clubs. Altafini responded to the snub by saying, ‘I didn’t leave Brazil, Brazil left me.’

Likewise, Brazilian players Deco, Liedson and Pepe, all became expats and went on to play for Portugal. Thiago Alcântara, son of Brazilian player Mazinho, also opted to play for Spain, despite the fact that his brother, Rafael Alcântara, still wears the canary yellow shirt for the under-20 national side.

But are these changes legal? FIFA stipulates that when a player has more than one nationality he may choose his prefered team, so long as he hasn’t previously played for another national team during another official match. Since Costa had only been on the field for friendlies, the choice was up to him.

The decision inevitably led to controversy, but Costa – who had never played for any Brazilian clubs and had moved to Spain when he was 19 years old – retains the right. It was there that he developed and improved his game, so he felt compelled to choose between the country he was born in and the one that had given him everything.

Felipão isn’t happy with Costa’s decision, claiming he’s turning his back on the chance of a lifetime. It must have slipped the coach’s mind that when he managed Portugal between 2003 and 2008, he had no issue with putting Brazilian Deco on the squad. In Costa’s defence, he quite rightly wasn’t sure that he’d find a place on the already star-studded Brazilian roster.

For fans, the question remains as to who stands to gain from Costa’s Spanish conversion. Either way, here’s hoping that the Sergipe state native, rather than the World Cup’s hosts, will end up on the losing side.

By Cecília Gianesi


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