Is it where you were born? Is it where your family is from? Is it where you learned football? How does a teenager choose what flag they will represent on the pitch for the rest of their life?
No American football journalist had an inkling he would play for the US before the squad was announced. Yet Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah started his first match for the US men’s national team last week against Wales. Musah is a 17-year-old who has featured for England’s youth programme, including captaining the U18’s.
Musah, who scored his first La Liga goal this month, was born in New York City while his Ghanaian mother was on vacation. He immediately moved to Italy for nine years before later going to the Arsenal academy in England.
He is eligible to play for all four nations and could be the biggest recruit for America since Sergiño Dest (son of an American serviceman) surprisingly chose the US over The Netherlands.
Dest had spent all of his life in the Netherlands until his move to Barcelona last month, including his entire academy experience at Ajax. Dest cited confidence in the US to stand behind him unconditionally. “The USMNT helped me when it didn’t go well, and I’m thankful for that.” He told ESPN.
It is an extremely personal decision to determine a national team yet fans and journalists will invoke their own patriotism and debate what every promising young star should do.
Furthermore, because America is not a football dominated nation, the link to politics, pride and identity has lower stakes compared to say choosing Brazil over Argentina. The real debate is how much ‘recruiting’ should be done for dual (or quad) nationals.
The US fan base has been more invested in fighting for players to represent the stars and stripes since Jonathan Gonzalez chose Mexico over America in 2018. Gonzalez was born and raised in California, representing the US up to U20 level.
A rising star in Liga MX, Gonzalez was unhappy when he wasn’t called up for senior team duty and received no communication as to why.
This one stung as Mexico is America’s footballing rival and they share many dual-eligible players. It is as close as the US gets to the proud political stakes you’d see from an Irish and English dual national.
Declan Rice and Jack Grealish are the most well-known recent cases of players who faced the unenviable task of choosing between those two historically intertwined nations. Both played for Ireland at the youth level but ultimately chose England, which begs the question: What is the criteria a young phenom would consider?
The patriot in each supporter would love to believe it is determined by a single true nationality in a player’s heart; but they can’t all be Gareth Bale (who could’ve played for England and vehemently rejected the notion).
To be the big fish in a smaller pond and live the moments of glory sounds romantic, but it’s naïve to not factor in money, playing time, access to the biggest tournaments, and the competitive history of the federation.
The Musah Case
Musah will not be cap tied to the US but this move provides a chance at building his reputation with a senior team immediately and the opportunity at marketing himself to a massive nation where football is growing. England has the history, the higher pedigree, and the Euros to factor in.
England boss Gareth Southgate is clearly open to young talent breaking into his senior side. He demonstrated this by handing a debut to Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham on November 12th. Bellingham, 17, became the third youngest player to be capped by England behind Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott.
However, credit must be given to US head coach Gregg Berhalter for scouting a blossoming player in Musah when England may have assumed he would remain in their pipeline.
The English may not panic or feel betrayed if they in fact lose Musah. After all he was born abroad and spent his childhood in the football powerhouse of Italy. Musah could also choose his mother’s nation of birth and play for Ghana.
The Black Stars regularly made the World Cup from 2006 to 2012 and represent a formidable proposition in African competition. With so many options one camp could sway a young player if he fits the system and bonds with the team.
Southgate commented on the matter to the Press Association and remarked that he has been in contact with Musah’s family, saying: “We want to get that balance right of not just pushing him up the age groups quicker than we think is right because we’ve got other boys in the system as well, and we don’t want to promise things that we can’t fulfill.”
It feels good to be pursued, but Musah is the only person that can determine his identity and what is best for his future in football. Those two things are not automatically intertwined. These countries can embrace the talented wunderkind but they cannot define him.
The German Experiment
Musah is a unique case even for the US; the story of their recent dual national emphasis has been the sons of European mothers and American military fathers.
With Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm at least ten footballers born and raised in Germany featured for the US, but that strategy and their effort for the team both came into question from prominent US footballers.
Even Tim Howard remarked to USA Today, “Klinsmann had a project to unearth talent around the world that had American roots. But having American roots doesn’t mean you are passionate about playing for that country.”
That experiment had decent success stories in Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Two of which played for the previous head coach, Bob Bradley. However, these days we only now see remnants of the project.
The US made a massive recruiting effort to cap Julian Green before the 2014 World Cup and he has been seldom called up since. John Brooks is the final holdover, he also played in the US youth system and he remains the top centre-back for the squad.
Many of those players were likely sold on the single fact that they would never make the squad for a historically good German side. America was their chance to play international football regularly.
The simple explanation for the letter of the law criteria is that you can play for a country where you, your parents, or your grandparents were born. You can also play for a nation where you are a permanent resident and have lived for three years before you turned ten, or five years if you moved there from 11 onwards.
There are many reasons for FIFA’s regulations but the one often cited in recent history is countries recruiting and naturalising Brazilian players. The danger becomes inviting and paying an athlete to live in your nation for gain in football with no ties to the country.
In comparison Musah has a true reason to play for any of four teams, but some have argued this type of recruitment could be one step from turning the international stage into the club game.
When it comes to changing nations, FIFA allows a one time switch as long as you haven’t played in more than three competitive fixtures (i.e. qualifiers or Nations League) before the age of 21. If you are over 21, any competitive match permanently ties you to the team. At any age a continental final or World Cup appearance makes the choice irreversible.
There are other amendments to help players who have lost residency or fallen out of favour with a federation at a young age. Specific countries also have their own requirements or exceptions because of complicated political relationships.
After the fixture against Wales Musah followed all of his US teammates and the official men’s national team on Instagram. Take that information as you will but regardless of his choice Valencia has a rising star that will contribute to a lucky country.