Kenny Otigba – Switching Allegiances: The Dilemma of National Legibility

For most young footballers, representing their country on the international stage is the ultimate dream. But for some players, the international call can come from more than one quarter – and at that point, a decision must be made. Do I want to play for my country of birth? Or do I want to represent my adopted land or the country of my heritage? And for some, their final decision can leave them wondering what might have been had they chosen the alternative path. That exact situation arose not once, but twice for Kenny Otigba.

Otigba was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and Hungarian mother, but moved to Hungary in childhood and grew up playing football in the country. At 15, Otigba moved to Holland from Bekescsaba to play for Heerenveen, and despite playing for various Hungarian youth teams from the age of 17, rarely returned to Hungary.

In 2014, at 22, Otigba was called up for the Hungary senior team to play vs Romania, but Otigba refused the call-up opting to choose the country of his birth over his adopted country. The decision didn’t sit well with the Hungarian fans.

Otigba’s club career didn’t pan out as planned from there, and in 2017 he returned to play in Hungary after an unsuccessful spell in Turkey. In March 2018, Otigba was again offered the chance to play for Hungary, and this time he accepted the call, much to the derision of a large percentage of the Hungarian footballing public. But Otigba is far from the first footballer to have such an identity crisis.

Perhaps the highest profile incident in recent years involved Atlético Madrid’s Diego Costa. The striker was born in Brazil but was granted Spanish nationality in 2013 after spending more than five years playing in the country. He had already played two friendly matches for Brazil when he made the switch and chose to play for Spain. While his career with Spain has not been spectacular, it’s probably fair to say he might not have fared much better had he stuck with Brazil. After all, both countries have a wealth of talent at their disposal.

Another recent example of a player who nearly switched allegiances is Jorginho, who currently plays for Napoli in Italy. Also born in Brazil, he moved to Italy at a young age and his family is of Italian origin. As a result, he holds both Brazilian and Italian citizenship. In 2014, he made it clear that he would prefer to represent Italy – but by 2017, he was considering his options. He had been called into the Italy squad but only for friendly matches and was overlooked for the Euro 2016 squad. With rumours that Brazil had been in contact, he was finally named by Gian Piero Ventura in the squad for Italy’s 2018 World cup play-off matches against Sweden. Unfortunately, the Azzurri failed to score over the two-legs and were knocked out by a 1-0 aggregate scoreline.

Many years ago, before rules were tightened up, players would often represent more than one country. One famous example is Iuliu Bodola, who represented Hungary 13 times and Romania 48 times between 1931 and 1948. In fact, he long held the records for most caps and most goals for the Romanian national team despite switching teams after World War II. He is often spoken of as the greatest Romanian national team player of all time.

Today, players need to make their choice before stepping onto the grass at senior competitive level. That is the dilemma that faced Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey, who recently gave the Jamaican Football Federation an ultimatum to persuade him why he should commit to the country of his birth when he could also represent England. With the clock ticking, the player, who has English grandparents has yet to make a decision although as of March 10, 2018 he was 5/2 to make the England World Cup squad with Oddschecker. As he is one of the hottest prospects in European football, it has been suggested that the FA should act quick and gain his commitment. However, as things stand, Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate has continued to overlook the player.

Back in the 1980s, another Jamaica-born player, John Barnes, also had the option of playing for either his home or adopted country. In fact, as a British passport holder at the time, he could have played for any British nation. Barnes himself stated:” “The only reason I played for England was because they were the first to ask… If Scotland had asked [first]… You go and play for Scotland.”

In perhaps the strangest case of all, Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano represented three countries during his career. Aged just 21, he’d made six appearances for native Argentina netting six goals in the process. He then moved to Colombia and in 1949, played four games for Colombia, but they were not recognised by FIFA. After taking Spanish nationality in 1956, he went on to play 31 games for La Roja but missed out on the 1958 World Cup when they failed to qualify. An injury also ruled him out of the next tournament in Chile, after which his international football career came to an end.