The Last Word: Should Colautti and Arnold be playing for Israel?

Ireland had never qualified for a major competition and was being outdone by its rival.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
When Jack Charlton took over as manager of the Irish national soccer team in 1986, the squad of players he inherited was far from successful. The Republic of Ireland had never qualified for a major competition and was being outdone by its rival north of the border. Two years later, Charlton had turned the team's fortunes around and achieved what many people had thought impossible; the Irish had qualified for Euro 1988 in West Germany. To top it all, Ireland even beat England 1-0 in its first match and managed a credible 1-1 draw with eventual finalist Russia. This team might have continued its success through to the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, but Charlton continually courted controversy because of his selection procedure. The way he managed to build such a successful team was to recruit players who weren't exactly Irish through and through. In fact, many of their parents weren't even Irish but they qualified to play for the boys in green through their grandparents' or sometimes even great-grandparents' nationality. John Aldridge was born in Liverpool, Ray Houghton in Glasgow and Chris Hughton, the first black man to play for Ireland, was born in London. Most of the Irish supporters didn't care, but there was always something not right about that period of Irish soccer. (It was especially difficult for English fans to watch as England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup while the Ireland squad flew off to the US with the very un-Irish Andy Townsend at the heart of its midfield.) Was it really the right thing to do for Charlton to seemingly play with the rules in order to unearth players of Irish descent and naturalize them so they could play for his team? We thought it would never happen in English soccer, until Owen Hargreaves. The midfielder, who is fast becoming an essential member of the national team, may have English parents, but he grew up in Canada, lives in Germany and just doesn't seem English. As Argentinian-turned-Israeli Roberto Colautti scored his first international goal just seven minutes into the Euro 2008 qualifier in Estonia on Saturday night, the question of naturalized players reared its head again - as it had done on Thursday when Jamie Arnold starred for Israel in the Eurobasket 2007 qualifier against Bosnia. However much these players were of help to the team, it felt a little like we were cheating. The Colautti case got the most exposure as his paperwork was approved by UEFA apparently only a few minutes before the team's plane left. There is no doubt that these two sportsmen are very dedicated to playing for Israel and their skills and experience can only be good for the team, but it just doesn't feel right. True, Colautti and Arnold are both married to Israelis and so have much more of a connection to the country and a claim to a place on the national squad than Clinton Morrison does to the Irish team. But even so, it feels wrong. We all know that they became Israeli quicker than they might have done otherwise just so they could play for the national team. As much as it would be a painful thing for people to accept, it is time for FIFA, UEFA and the governing bodies of other sports to stop these shenanigans and only allow athletes to represent the country they were born in unless they have changed their status independently. That is how international competition was supposed to work and how it should work.