Report: Despite gaining citizenship, Zelalem not yet eligible for USMNT
Gedion Zelalem may have to wait a little bit – or potentially a lot – longer before he suits up for the U.S. men's national team.
According to an ESPN report, Zelalem’s obtaining of U.S. citizenship (first reported by the Washington Post and later confirmed by SI’s Grant Wahl) is only part of the process, thanks to an obscure item in the FIFA rulebook that could mean the Arsenal prospect would have to wait five years to play for the Stars and Stripes.
The key detail is that Zelalem, who was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, is a naturalized citizen whose parents and grandparents were also born overseas. He was able to obtain his citizenship through the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.
His father, Zelalem Woldyes, became an American citizen prior to Gedion turning 18, and under the act, that automatically grants the Arsenal product a U.S. passport.
That is an important distinction for FIFA, though, because, according to the organization, players that are naturalized citizens must live in the country they wish to represent internationally for at least five years from his 18th birthday.
Therein lies the problem. Zelalem just turned 18 on Monday, and with things going well with the Arsenal youth team, the chances of him coming back to the U.S. (not to mention having to stay for five years) are practically non-existent.
U.S. Soccer is on it. According to ESPN, the federation has appealed to FIFA for a special exception to the rule based on Zelalem’s time attending school in the United States – he lived in the USA from 2006-2013 – before making the move to Arsenal. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati expects the request to be granted.
"We're going through the FIFA process and hope to have Gedion eligible by March or April," said Gulati, who also sits on FIFA's executive committee, told ESPN FC on Monday. "We don't expect any issues."
A parallel to the Zelalem case is difficult to find, but one example that involves the same basic set of rules is Diego Costa’s 2014 move from the Brazil national team to the Spanish one. The Brazilian-born Costa made the controversial switch to Spain after obtaining Spanish citizenship and applying for a one-time switch through FIFA. However, in that case, Costa met the threshold that Zelalem did not; Costa made his home in Spain for seven years (mostly spent playing for Atlético Madrid) before applying for the switch.