In some sense, football is a coin with two sides. On one side the club is symbolized, on the other the country. Allegiance runs two ways for footballers and supporters alike, albeit in differing ways.
For fans, there can be only one club. For most players, there will be many throughout their careers. Allegiances are constantly tested by the pull of lucrative offers, whether the inclination to buy or sell originates with employer or employee. The relationship between fan and club is unimpeachable – but for the men who play the game, such just simply isn’t the case in the modern game.
But international football is meant to be an oasis, a different arena to the weekly grind of club football where loyalties are sacrosanct and infinite. On the side of the game played in front of the backdrop of nations, those on the pitch and in the stands are meant to be one and the same. There is to be no chopping and changing, no tenuous trust that can be violated by the forces of finance or otherwise. But as with everything in football, it’s not quite that simple – in the international game there are too indeed shades of gray.
In an age of global society, the decision of which nation to represent isn’t as simple as it may seem for footballers. Being born within a set of borders doesn’t necessarily compel a player to pull on the shirt of the country in question. Immigration, politics, ambition, desire and self-determination all play a role amongst myriad factors. The only thing certain with players who have options at the international level is that someone, somewhere will end up feeling let down – and will likely forever hold on to what they see as the ultimate betrayal.
So without further adieu, following are the top 15 ‘traitors’ international football history.
15 Darron Gibson
Sometimes, football can stretch into politics – and Darron Gibson’s defection to the Republic of Ireland caused something of an international incident. As all Northern Irish born on the island are entitled to citizenship in the Republic, those hailing from the north are intrinsically eligible to represent the nation to the south. Gibson had begun his international career in the Northern Irish youth set-up, but crossed over to the Republic after being exiled from the ranks after flirting with Manchester United in trials. The Derry native thus sat at the heart of a heated row between the Irish Football Association and Football Association of Ireland, with the former protesting that Gibson’s turn could set a dangerous precedent for Northern Ireland’s most talented footballers leaving for the more successful Republic down the years. Gibson has gone on to win 25 caps after making his Ireland debut at the age of 19 in 2007, joining Everton in 2012 from Manchester United.
14 Lukas Podolski
Born in Gliwice, Podolski left Poland at the age of two, before his youthful eyes and ears had fully absorbed the sights and sounds of the nation of his origin. Instead of the king of Poland he was destined to become known as the ‘Prince of Koln’, the favorite son of the Westphalian city where he first made his name as a footballer. Having come up through the youth ranks of the Germany set-up, Podolski burst onto the radar of the senior side with consistently impressive displays for a Koln outfit forced by financial constraints to turn to the then-18-year-old. The Polish press implored head coach Pawel Janas to consider bringing Podolski into the fold, to which the boss responded with vitriol, saying with certainty that the burgeoning striker wasn’t up to par for his side. Janas would eat his words. Podoloski continued his brilliant form at Koln and dispensed with his previous desire to represent Poland, accepting the call from Germany and making the Euro 2004 squad as Poland failed to qualify. More than a decade on, Podolski sits third all-time in Die Mannschaft history in both appearances and goals. The Inter forward has confided that he still maintains a strong affinity for Poland – even as unsavory events such as a far right Polish politician calling for his citizenship to be revoked in 2008 have occurred – saying that ‘two hearts’ beat inside him for his homeland and adoptive footballing state.
13 Jonathan de Guzman
It’s safe to say that Jonathan de Guzman comes from an international family. A Canadian native from the city of Scarborough, the Napoli man’s father hailed from the Philippines while his mother spent the first ten years of her life in Jamaica. As could be guessed due to his profession, de Guzman’s childhood revolved around football – something he has admitted was strange for a Canadian youngster. Discovering his talent, de Guzman jumped at the chance to join the Feyenoord academy at the age of 12, in 1999. By 2008, he received Dutch citizenship, immediately declaring his allegiance to the Netherlands despite stating on Canadian national television he hadn’t made up his mind just before receiving his passport. After representing the Oranje at the U-21 level, not until 2013 would de Guzman be handed his first senior cap. In the meantime, his Canadian international older brother caused a storm by giving an interview in which he said de Guzman had certain conditions under which he would represent his birth nation. That, of course, never happened. No wonder Canadian pundits spent de Guzman’s World Cup debut against Spain in the summer pointing out the midfielder’s every flaw.
12 Kevin-Prince Boateng
Born in Berlin to a Ghanaian father and a German mother, Kevin-Prince Boateng’s story in international football unfolded in something of a unique way. Coming up through the German youth ranks, the midfielder rose all the way up to the U-21 level for the nation of his birth. Boateng’s relationship with the German authorities then turned sour, and in 2009 he announced his intention to switch allegiance to Ghana – having previously spurned the opportunity to represent the Black Stars at the 2006 World Cup. By May 2010, he was granted clearance to play for Ghana, coinciding with his infamous FA Cup tackle on Michael Ballack that reignited his nationwide row with Germany and caused a falling-out with his half-brother Jerome. Boateng later retired from international duty in November 2011 at the ripe old age of 24, only to make himself available for selection once again in time for the 2014 World Cup. The tournament didn’t exactly go smoothly for the former Milan man – he was dismissed early alongside Sulley Muntari for reportedly insulting Ghana boss Kwesi Appiah in front of his teammates.
11 Giuseppe Rossi
As the most prominent prodigal son of the United States, Rossi has no shortage of detractors throughout the nation of his birth. The son of Italian immigrants, the striker’s father – a football coach – recognized Rossi’s talent at a young age and as a 12-year-old moved him back across the pond to join the Parma academy. Despite speaking the language, Rossi admitted feeling alienated at first, but soon took off and was brought in by Manchester United four years later. Wearing the Italy shirt starting at the U-16 level, Rossi became persona non grata in American circles after he rejected an invitation from the United States before the 2006 World Cup to wait for his chance with the Azzurri. Two years later, Rossi made his Italy debut, and in a twist of fate, slammed home two goals against Team USA at the Confederations Cup in 2009. Rossi has since been struck with terrible luck from an international standpoint, missing out on two World Cups and a European Championship due in large part to a series of devastating injuries. American fans are quick to cite a curse in relation to his choice to represent Italy when discussing Rossi’s unenviable knee problems.
10 Diego Costa
While many others live in infamy in an historical sense, Diego Costa is doing so at this very moment. The Brazil native perhaps chose the most inopportune moment possible to turn his back on the South American nation, doing so just before the World Cup was staged there. Costa gleefully accepted his maiden call-up to the Selecao in March 2013, only to tell former boss Luiz Felipe Scolari to stuff it later that year after receiving a Spanish passport. The then-Atletico Madrid forward then had a FIFA petition to change nationality accepted, leaving Brazil fuming and the CBF threatening to move to revoke Costa’s Brazilian citizenship. Costa and Spain went on to have a wretched World Cup showing, as the Lagarto-born striker was showered with abuse from all angles from the stands. One would be hard pressed to find a sympathizer with Costa given the way he went about rejecting Brazil – he made his bed, now he must lie in it, as they say.
As if Pepe needed any more reasons to draw the ire of football fans, there’s his background in the international game. Despite plying his trade in his native Brazil until the age of 18, the controversial center back was ignored by Selecao scouts in a nation rich with talent. A move to Portugal with Maritimo as a teenager didn’t help, as Pepe was pulled from his birth nation and thrust into a new environment. Portugal struck a chord with the then-teenager, who took the decision to await citizenship from his adopted country and represent them instead. In 2006, Brazil head coach Dunga allegedly put out feelers to at last bring Pepe into the Selecao camp, at which time he informed his homeland that he unequivocally intended to play for Portugal once he was naturalized. In August 2007, Pepe became a Portuguese citizen and banished all hope for the Selecao that he would ever return. His time in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup wouldn’t be a happy one, as he was sent off for violent conduct in Portugal’s opener against Germany, with Paulo Bento’s men crashing out in the group stage.
8 Owen Hargreaves
Like de Guzman, Hargreaves is yet another lost footballing son of Canada – although his backstory reads far differently than that of the Dutch international. The 33-year-old was born with close ties to the United Kingdom, his father an Englishman and his mother Welsh. His footballing education was to come in Germany, however, leaving Calgary to join Bayern Munich as a 16-year-old in 1997. Hargreaves’ first substantive brush with international football then came in the Wales youth set-up, which he immediately abandoned after England expressed an interest in him. At only the age of 20, the midfielder made his senior debut for the Three Lions, forever leaving Wales and Canada aggrieved by his decision. To this day, the internet is littered with the remnants of online campaigns that were designed to keep Hargreaves from ever signing with a Canadian club. Perhaps the snubbed nation can take solace in the fact that Hargreaves was at least initially treated as something of an awkward character in Three Lions circles due to an apparent lack of cultural connection to England.
How did Brazil let Deco slip the net? One would be a bit harsh to call him a traitor – more than anything, the playmaker was a victim of the talent in the Selecao ranks. Not once as a youngster was he ever capped by Brazil, leaving behind South America at the age of 19 for Portugal. There, Deco flourished. His brilliance at Porto under a certain Jose Mourinho saw the attacking midfielder earn a move to Barcelona, where he shone in spite of initial questions as to whether he’d be overshadowed by Ronaldinho. Despite this, Deco’s chances of ever making the Brazil squad remained remote due to the depth in the squad at his position, and he would have to wait until obtaining Portuguese citizenship to play international football. Deco’s inclusion in the Portugal squad was a controversial one, as protests persisted for months in anticipation that he would be brought in. On his debut, the diminutive midfielder scored the winner for his adopted nation – against Brazil of all sides. This didn’t stop Luis Figo from taking issue with Deco’s presence in the squad, but in due time, the ex-Chelsea man became a key player and declared his love for the Portuguese shirt.
6 Marcos Senna
Not until the age of 26 did Senna make the move to Europe from his native Brazil, but that didn’t matter so much to the CBF. The midfielder was constantly passed over for the Selecao even as he played right under the noses of spotters, and the golden era of his career would only truly begin once he departed South America for Spain. At Villarreal, initial struggles gave way to legend status, and upon gaining Spanish citizenship in 2006, Senna would at last learn the joy of representing a nation – albeit not the one he was born in. Later that year, Senna made the Spain squad for the World Cup in Germany, two years later winning the European Championship as one of the tournament’s best players. Senna would miss Spain’s World Cup victory in South Africa after developing physical problems in the intervening years, but by then had already left his mark on Spanish football history. Your loss, Brazil.
5 Mauro Camoranesi
Growing up with the love of River Plate in his heart, Camoranesi was never able to force his way into the club he adored as a boy. Instead, he spent only two years playing professionally in his native Argentina in his younger years, also cutting his teeth in Mexico and Uruguay. Verona snapped him up in 2000 and Camoranesi almost immediately claimed Italian citizenship through a great-grandfather who had come from Potenza Picena. And as the Albiceleste lost track of the boy from Tandil, Italy pounced – Camoranesi thus joined a rich history of Oriundi to wear the Azzurri shirt. However, the winger courted controversy with supporters during the 2006 World Cup when he confessed not to know the words to the Italian national anthem. Camoranesi would help right the situation as he played a key role in the Azzurri’s victorious run to the final in Berlin, in which he played 86 minutes before being substituted for Alessandro Del Piero. He would famously dedicate the win over France to his friends back in Argentina with a short statement to a television camera spoken in Spanish.
4 Patrick Vieira
When Patrick Vieira left his native Senegal for France as an eight-year-old, he certainly did not have a clue of the incredible joy he would one day help bring to his adopted nation. He landed in a Paris suburb as a young boy who was yet to even get his start in football – and now some 20 years later stands as a World Cup and European Championship-winning legend who wore the armband for Les Bleus 21 times. But questions have always surrounded Vieira’s choice to play for France, given his roots on another continent. According to the hulking midfielder, however, it was never a conscious decision. Vieira maintains that Senegal never even approached him to offer a place in the squad, pointing to “structural failings” in African football that left France as the sole suitor for his services on the international stage. Last June, Vieira returned to Senegal in search of what he has described as a rediscovery of a lost part of his life, seeing a need to reconnect after devoting his football soul to the blue shirt of France.
3 Miroslav Klose
Yes, the top scorer in World Cup finals history is something of a defector. Klose hails from a part of Poland that had previously belonged to Germany, his ethnic German family having remained in the region of Silesia after it was handed to Poland in the aftermath of the Second World War. This said, Polish is the Lazio striker’s first language, and by the time he moved to West Germany in the mid 1980s, the only German words he knew were those for ‘yes’ and ‘thank you.’ This didn’t stop Klose from catching the eye of the German football system, however, and after making waves at Kaiserslautern, he was courted by Die Mannschaft. Poland then moved to secure his services at the international level, but Klose spurned the advances of manager Jerzy Engel to hold out for a chance with Germany. Soon it would come, and more than a decade later Klose stands as an undisputed legend of international football. The 36-year-old later admitted that turning down Poland was a painful decision to make, but said the relevant authorities did not act quickly enough to bring him into the fold as a young player.
2 Luis Monti
In 1920, a Swiss-bred footballer named Ermanno Aebi ran out for the fledgling Italian national team twice. Aebi’s name may largely be lost in the annals of history, but he was the first of a long line of foreign footballers of Italian heritage – like Camoranesi – who would represent the Azzurri, and still do to this day. Perhaps the most distinguished of all the so-called Oriundi was Luis Monti, who plied his trade for his native Argentina at the inaugural World Cup in 1930, only to sign for Juventus and lift the trophy for Italy four years later. Scoring the first goal in that 1934 final in Rome for the Italians was winger Raimundo Orsi, a fellow Bianconeri man and former Argentina international. Two more Argentines, Attilio Demaria and Enrique Guaita, also were members of the victorious Azzurri squad, with Brazilian Anfilogino Guarisi in tow. When Italy triumphed yet again in the 1938, ex-Uruguay midfielder Miguel Andreolo was a regular fixture in the side. Down the years, Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Jose Altafini and Omar Sivori – the former two World Cup-winners with Uruguay and Brazil, respectively – would also join the ranks of the Oriundi.
1 Alfredo Di Stefano
Few legends will ever be held in the same lofty regard as Alfredo Di Stefano, consistently honored as one of greatest to ever lace up a pair of football boots. Among other distinctions, Di Stefano holds the title of having played for three national sides over the course of his career – his native Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Few could blame the prolific forward for acquiring Spanish citizenship in 1956 to play for the Iberian nation, having played just six times before for Argentina. The Albiceleste chose to abstain from the World Cup in both 1950 and 1954, leaving Di Stefano without a platform to take his talents to the grandest stage in football. Despite scoring 23 times for Spain, however, Di Stefano was never able to realize his World Cup dream. La Furia Roja missed out on the tournament in 1958 but qualified in 1962 – only for the then-36-year-old to pick up an injury that kept him from making the trip to Chile.
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