In a landmark ruling, FIFA has adjusted rules governing football players switching international associations after approving amendments to the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes at the organisation’s 70th Congress on Friday.
This move comes after heavy lobbying by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) president Fouzi Lekjaa. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Lekjaa led the FRMF in an appeal to have Munir El Haddadi switch allegiance to the north African country after featuring for Spain six years ago.
The appeal to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport was unsuccessful. Some 20 years ago, Durban-born Sean Dundee represented Germany’s national football B team and was cap-tied when Carlos Queiroz considered him for Bafana Bafana in 2002 while turning out for VfB Stuttgart.
As for El Haddadi, he was born in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a historical residence of the King of Spain, about 45 kilometres northwest of the Spanish capital, Madrid. The majestic El Escorial boasts two architectural complexes of great historical and cultural significance: the royal monastery itself and La Granjilla de La Fresneda, a royal hunting lodge and monastic retreat.
He then grew up in nearby Galapagar on a street called “Little Morocco” by El Mundo, the second largest printed daily newspaper in Spain.
El Haddadi’s dad Mohamed El Haddadi Arbrqui, originally from the north African country, came to Spain in a fishing boat at age 18 and is now a chef while his mom hails from Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city located on the northwest coast of Africa, sharing a border with Morocco.
His rise to stardom was nothing short of meteoric. Aged 15, El Haddadi was snapped up by Atletico Madrid after impressing on trial. Yet, for reasons unknown to football gods, he was shipped out on loan to fourth-tier Rayo Majadahonda – a stint which would play a pivotal role in his career.
During his time with the Madrid minnows, Munir scored 32 goals in 29 matches. Unsurprisingly, his form sent alarm bells ringing all over Europe; from England, the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal took interest in the starlet, while Paris Saint-Germain also showed interest.
However, it was when Barcelona found out that rivals Real Madrid were in the front seat to lure the speedy winger that the Blaugrana came to the fore. Legend has it that, during negotiations, Real Madrid refused to provide him accommodation within their academy residencies. Barca, diplomatic as ever, offered him a place in their €11 million facility. The choice was simple, and Munir inevitably headed to Barca.
“I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it,” said the hot prospect at the time. In any case, his idol Lionel Messi was at Barca.
After his arrival at La Masia, El Haddadi continued to impress and was given his chance to shine in the UEFA Youth League – the Under-19s version of the Champions League. On his debut he scored a brace against Ajax, before showcasing his striking prowess in several other impressive performances en route to the championship. He scored a brace in the final against Benfica, which included a magnificent strike from halfway in a comfortable 3-0 win.
Luis Enrique’s arrival as the Catalonian giants’ coach in 2014 following the departure of Gerardo Martino was always going to be good for the youngster, and he was soon promoted to the first team. In addition, the suspension of Luis Suarez and Neymar’s injury gave him a chance to prove his worth. By the end of pre-season, he was the Catalans’ top scorer with four goals.
“I had no fear about playing him,” claimed Enrique after Barcelona’s opening day 3-0 win over Elche. “He trains like he plays; he gives us a lot of options and he has a lot of character. He never rests. But let’s not get carried away, he still has a lot to do.”
The striker’s ingenuity was there for all to see and would not go unnoticed as it earned him his Spanish national team call up on September 8, 2014 in the 5-1 win against Macedonia in the qualifiers for Euro 2016. He replaced Koke in the final 13 minutes of that match, tying himself to Spain, and letting go of his option to represent Morocco.
But on Friday, Lekjaa and El Haddadi would have been relieved when the world football governing body took a decision to allow players that have already earned senior national team caps to switch allegiance. The decision was ratified during FIFA’s 70th Congress which took place via videoconferencing. In the new decision, a player who has less than three international matches for a particular country before turning 21 years will be eligible to play for another country.
The new rule however doesn’t apply for games played at the FIFA World Cup, including qualifiers and Confederation tournaments such as Africa Cup of Nations, UEFA and Copa America among others. Therefore, if a player features for a given country at the aforementioned tournaments, they will not be considered for change of nationality.
“With the new rules just voted by the vast majority of FIFA congress participants, any player who has played a maximum of three matches during his international career for a national team, may switch to another national team if he holds the citizenship of that country while respecting other conditions.
“Among those conditions that have to be respected is that the age of the player at the time he officially represented the national team for the first time has to be Under 21, and that he stopped representing the same national team for the past three years at least,” the FRMF said in a statement.
El Haddadi’s La Roja debut was made at 19 and means he could still play for Morocco following Friday’s ruling.
The new FIFA rule comes as a boost for Morocco’s Atlas Lions with Anwar Ghazi, who played for the Dutch team twice, also set to switch to his parents’ country of origin Morocco.
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By Mthokozisi Dube