Can Soccer Players Change National Team?

By Omar Elhussieny •  Updated: 06/22/22 •  11 min read

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Ever wondered if a soccer player can change the national team they play for? Well, this article should give a good insight.

Can Soccer Players Change National Team?

The rules regarding which national team you can represent and when you’re allowed to “change” national team tend to change over time. Historically, it was possible for players to play for different national teams. For example, Alfredo Di Stefano played for Argentina, Columbia, and Spain.

Jack Reynolds earned certain notoriety in the final decade of the 19th century when he became the first (excluding own goals) and to date the only player to ever score both for and against England.

In the 20th century, FIFA allowed a player to represent any national team, as long as the player held citizenship of that country. In 2004, in reaction to the growing trend toward naturalization of foreign players in some countries, FIFA implemented a significant new ruling that requires a player to demonstrate a “clear connection” to any country they wish to represent. FIFA has used its authority to overturn results of competitive international matches that feature ineligible players.

FIFA instituted a comprehensive revamp of the eligibility system in January 2021, giving players who might otherwise have been tied to a nationality through junior representation or even full national team caps the ability to switch to another nation.

It is generally accepted that there are many players who hold more than one nationality and whose attachment to a particular country or countries is inherently nuanced.

“We have amended the eligibility rules for national teams because it is important in a globalized world where players maybe have two or three different nationalities that they are given the opportunity to choose their country or to change – if certain strict conditions are met.” Explained FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

The basis of the eligibility rules is effectively the same, but there have been a few clarifications and some additional insertions. Here are the main restrictions:

  1. the player held the nationality of their new association at the time of their first official appearance for their first national team.
  2. the player played in no more than three competitive senior games before the age of 21.
  3. the player has not played in the final stage of an official tournament such as the World Cup, European Championship, Copa America etc.
  4. at least three years have passed since the player’s last senior appearance for their previous national team.

In addition, a player can now change to a new national team even if they did not hold that nationality at the time of their first appearance for their old national team, if they last played for the old national team before the age of 21.

It should be noted that there is an exception underpinned by the principle of legal certainty, whereby the age limit of 21 does not apply to players who played their last match for their old national team prior to September 18, 2020, when the new rules were introduced. This exception explains why Aymeric Laporte, who played for France Under-21s at the age of 21 in 2016, is permitted to switch to Spain.

The eligibility rules allow a footballer to change their national team allegiance only once – but the new rules do allow for a reversal of that one switch in certain circumstances.

The flexibility FIFA is offering players with such rules is another exhibition of how FIFA keeps players as a priority in the game.

Famous Soccer Players to Play for More than One National Team

I’ve chosen some of the most famous allegiance switches that impacted both players careers and national teams.

Alfredo Di Stefano

This was the first big case and unlike other players, he represented three national teams not just two. Ironically, he never played in a FIFA World Cup. Di Stefano debuted and scored for the Argentine national team in 1947 during the South American Championship taking place in Ecuador. Di Stefano’s six games during that tournament would prove to be his only appearances for Argentina.

Players’ strikes, and a dispute with the Brazilian Football Confederation, forced Argentina to withdraw from qualifying for the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, as well as the 1949 and 1953 South American Championships. On account of his appearances for the Colombia XI two years earlier, Di Stefano was banned from making any further appearances for Argentina. A ban that made playing for Spain a sensible outcome.

Alfredo acquired Spanish citizenship in 1956 and after a rally between FIFA and Spanish Football Association, he was given the green light to represent La Roja. On 30 January 1957 in a friendly against the Netherlands in Madrid, he made his debut for Spain scoring a hat-trick in a 5–1 win. He retired from internationals after helping Spain qualify to the 1962 World Cup.

Lukas Podolski

Former Bayern Munich and Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski was born in Poland and the Polish media urged then-national team coach Pawel Janas to call him up in 2003 after a string of impressive performances as an 18-year-old for Cologne. Coach Pawel explicitly denied the need to call him up for Polish national team and made it clear that Lukas is not part of his plans as he believes it’s too early for him to compete at this level. Although I’m sure Lukas was not happy about such remarks, years later he must have felt good Janas turned him down.

Podolski continued to turn heads in Bundesliga despite FC Köln (his club back then) relegation at the end of the season. German media increasingly highlighted his performances to suggest he should be called up to the German national team. On June 4th, 2004, he made his debut in Kaiserslautern against Hungary with a late substitute appearance and aged only 19 years old. Lukas continued to be a reliable choice for Mannschaft until his last match against England in 2017. A cabinet stuffed with FIFA World Cup plus several trophies won in Germany, England, Turkey and Japan was the ultimate outcome of his choice. Undoubtedly, it was the right call.

Kevin-Prince Boateng

Born in Germany, Boateng represented his native country internationally at youth level; he opted to represent Ghana at senior level 15 times between 2010 and 2014—scoring two goals—and represented them at the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. Some years later Kevin was reflecting on his decision in a chat with French legend Thierry Henry and he said “So there came a time when I thought I was not going to make it with Germany, not because of my quality but because my character doesn’t fit. So, I decided to play for Ghana and honestly it is one of the best of my career.” Back in 2014, Boateng fell out with Ghanaian national team coach Appiah the morning of their third group game and was never called up to represent the Black Stars again. Since the same tournament that saw Kevin’s last international appearance, saw Germany win the World Cup, I can’t agree that it was one of the best in his career.

Kalidou Koulibaly

“I want to write the story of the future of Senegal football.” Is how Koulibaly justified his decision to switch from France to Senegal. After representing France U20 in the World Cup, he made up his mind about a move to be part of the Lions of Teranga. Since then, Kalidou has backed up this move with actions as he reached the AFCON final in 2019 and captained the side to glory in February 2022 beating Egypt on penalties in the AFCON final. In 2018 he was part of the Senegalese defense line for the World Cup held in Russia. Despite being eliminated on the fair play rules, Koulibaly will get another chance with Senegalese legion in Qatar 2022 to prove that African champions can go further this time. When asked about how he feels after watching Les Bleus become world champions in 2018, he expressed mixed feelings. The world class defender wished he were part of that team, but he insisted he feels no regret. Furthermore, he stated that the light he has seen in his parents’ eyes when he informed them about his decision to represent Senegal will always be a reminder why he chose the motherland.

Diego Costa

Players are usually hesitating before they decide to switch allegiance for the rest of their careers. In Costa’s case, I would say he is the conundrum himself. Although it’s viewed by many as a rare case of a player turning his back to five times world champion Brazilian Selecao, this needs a bit of scrutiny. After representing Brazil in two friendlies in 2013 Diego felt he won’t make the squad for the World cup in 2014. To his cynical reasons, he informed Brazilian national team staff that he is not fit to play to avoid playing any official games for Brazil in order to keep the door open for switching to Spain, where he played since 2007. In a letter to Brazilian Football Confederation sent in October 2013, Costa expressed his desire to play international soccer for Spain. This letter made him a public enemy in Brazil and started a wave of anger that resulted in many Brazilian soccer figures describing him as “only motivated by money” and ‘unwelcomed anymore’. Costa’s journey with the Spanish national team was hot and cold from the get-go. Disappearing from La Roja squad from time to time and not showing the quality expected in his 24 appearances, I can’t say the Spanish national team benefited a lot from adding him to the team. Notably, French newspaper L’Equipe named Costa the most hated footballer in December 2015, based on his provocative and violent behavior on the pitch.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Aubameyang had multiple choices to go for. He was invited to play for Italy U19, eligible to play for Spain, debuted for France U21 and ultimately chose captaining Gabon national team. Pierre once stated that his sole reason to pick Gabon was his father’s legacy. He decided to represent Gabon because his father once captained the team. So far, Aubameyang has been Gabon’s top goal scorer with 27 goals in 68 appearances for the country. Unfortunately for the star, Gabon is yet to win a competition, but his personal accolades are numerous on the national stage. He has notably won the African Player of the Year award in 2015.

Thiago Motta

Although, he played for the U-23 side, he was never actually called up to play for the Brazil senior side. Having played for Brazil in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a FIFA recognized tournament, not representing Brazil on senior level made him eligible to switch allegiance to Italy thru his grandfather who was Italian. Motta debuted for Italy on February 9th, 2011 and played 30 matches for Italy in total. It is worth mentioning that he represented the Azzuri in UEFA EURO 2012, the 2014 World Cup, and UEFA EURO 2016.

Taulant Xhaka

Born in Basel, Switzerland to a Kosovar-Albanian family. Both Taulant and his brother Granit played for Swiss national youth teams before Taulant decided to represent Albania at senior level. Granit opted to stay with Switzerland. While Granit Xhaka went on to join Borussia Monchengladbach and then Arsenal, Taulant has remained at Basel. Taulant made his debut for Albania in 2014 and was always open about his relationship with his brother and how they dream of playing for the same club again one day. In EURO 2016 brothers Xhaka were set to cross swords in the opening match. “We fought against one another, and it was a football match, nothing more.” A comment you hear often after a soccer match, but this time it was under the spotlight since it’s the first time two brothers clash with different teams in EURO history. In the stands, their mother wore a half and half top emblazoned with half a Swiss flag and half an Albanian eagle and the name Xhaka under. Switzerland snatched the three points that day and gave younger brother Granit full family bragging rights. Taulant has represented Alabnia 30 times and stacked 10 trophies in Swiss soccer. Meanwhile, Granit’s career has been developing better from the start. The younger brother has more prestigious nine titles under his belt including U17 World Cup champion with Switzerland U17 in 2009 and Swiss Footballer of the Year in 2017.

Omar Elhussieny

My name is Omar Elhussieny and I'm a sports author and ex professional player with decent experience in different leagues and regions. I have won few trophies in my player career and participated in two UEFA Champions league seasons. My life always revolved around this game and after hanging my boots I decided to put my experiences and thoughts into words and share it with you. While I'm writing I'm always thinking about that young kid who is dreaming of becoming a professional player one day and I try to be the mentor I needed when I was younger. Whether you are a player, a coach or just a fellow fan of this beautiful game, we share the passion for it and that's all that matters, isn't it?!