Multinational Soccer Players Struggle to Pick a National Identity

MLS and US soccer star Teal Bunbury is Guyanese. Or American. Or Canadian, or English, or Portuguese, or....?

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

The Bunbury family has a Christmas tradition. Every year, Kristi, from Minnesota, makes Guyanese pepperpot.

“It's a mixture of a bunch of different things that if people heard what was in it they might be turned off,” Teal Bunbury, a player on the U.S. national soccer team, told me. “It's like oxtail and pigtail and weird things like that, but it's amazing.”

Alex Bunbury, Teal's father, was born in Guyana. A Canadian citizen, he played soccer professionally in Portugal, England, and the United States.

By the time Teal was six, he and his sister, Kylie (an actress on ABC's Twisted), were learning English, French, and Portuguese in a Portuguese private school. So when Teal, born in Hamilton, Ontario, took up the family trade and became a professional soccer player, his ethnic and cultural background didn't slot neatly into one national identity.

Alex scored 16 goals for the Canadian national team, only a handful away from the records of the top scorers in the country's history. Teal initially followed his father's path to play for Canada's youth teams. As a teenager, he made some regrettable comments about his international future, saying it would “feel wrong” to play for the United States. But it was never that simple.

Go ahead and ask Teal Bunbury where he's from.

“I say I'm from Minnesota,” the striker explained, sitting at a picnic table outside Sporting Kansas City's windswept training ground last year. “If they want to know more detail, 'Oh, is that where you were born?' or whatever, I'll be like, 'No.' I give them the whole, 'I was born in Canada, went to England, Portugal, and then finally ended up in Minnesota.'”

He switched national allegiances in 2010, at age 20, and is in the U.S. national team pool.

Ever since FIFA, soccer's world governing body, changed the rule in 1962, players can only represent one country in officially-sanctioned matches. (Amendments in 2004 and 2009 let players change even after representing a different country in youth tournaments or unofficial exhibition matches, provided FIFA approves a one-time switch.)

Previously, players jumped to and fro willy-nilly. Perhaps the two most famous cases are Real Madrid stars Alfredo Di Stefano (his native Argentina, Colombia briefly and then Spain) and Ferenc Puskas (85 appearances for Hungary and then Spain). Here's a full list of international shifts, heavy on former USSR players forced to switch after their country disintegrated.

Otherwise, owners of multiple passports must cram them into one international soccer identity.

Or something like that. Countries used to have more distinct national playing identities. Italy's catenaccio, Netherlands' total football, Brazilian jogo bonito, British long ball. (Insert snide remark about the state of England under Roy Hodgson here.) Globalization has helped deteriorate the distinction between styles, melting them into larger worldwide trends.

Formerly, most players on a national team all lived in-country and played in its domestic league. Now, well, a report in the Guardian showed that two-thirds of the players in the opening weekend of the English Premier League, arguably the best league in the world, were foreign nationals. France built a World Cup-winning team in 1998 based on players exported to better leagues across Europe, and most South American internationals migrate toward the more lucrative club contracts in Europe.

An increase in global mobility has led to a proliferation of dual-nationals. For instance, as the border between the United States and Mexico blurs, the national identity of those who straddle it becomes more fluid.

Two players have represented both the Yanks and El Tri at the senior level: current U.S. assistant coach Martin Vasquez and Club Tijuana fullback Edgar Castillo. Each country keeps luring players from clubs across the border. The recent U.S. under-20 team, coached by former Tigres midfielder Tab Ramos, leaned heavily on the attacking duo of Benji Joya and Dani Cuevas. Both grew up in California and joined Santos Laguna as teenagers. Because of their Mexican passports, they don't take valuable foreign roster spots in Liga MX.

“My parents are both Mexican. My heritage is Mexican,” Cuevas told me. “I speak Spanish all day at home. It's pretty deep in my roots. That's not going to go away. And I play in Mexico. So I'm very Mexican, but my heart's here in the U.S. This is who I play for.”

Plenty of factors go into picking a national team. Familial sway, career possibilities and cultural currency all vie for importance. A strong national identity of parents can appeal to global vagabonds. So too can the potential of a World Cup, especially when one of the possible national choices doesn't have a shot at qualifying in this lifetime. The country to first pick up a phone and pay an international calling fee can also nudge a decision.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a former German international who has lived in California for a decade and a half, seems to support a purely emotional choice.

"It’s a difficult decision for a player: 'Which country do I want to play for? Whom do I represent when I have both passports?'” Klinsmann said on U.S. Soccer's official site. "I always tell the player that no matter the background he has that they have to go with their heart.”

Klinsmann has helped usher a series of German-born players into the U.S. setup. Last week in a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina, 20-year-old defender John Anthony Brooks became the latest with a German mother and an American serviceman father to pull on the red, white and blue. "My future is the USA team," Brooks said after the game.

Two years younger, Julian Green's future is more obfuscated. The forward scored a hat trick for Bayern Munich in coach Pep Guardiola's preseason debut. He's already played for both the German and U.S. U-20 teams.

Go ahead and ask Green where he's from.

“I would answer I am from Miesbach, Bavaria in Germany,” Green told Fusion.

He was born in Tampa, Fla. and moved to Germany, where his mother is from, at age 2. Even after joining Bayern Munich's youth system at 14, he frequently visits Florida to see his father. He likes watching basketball and hockey.

With two passports, Green doesn't find percentages particularly useful for describing his national makeup.

“Perhaps you could say I am German with American roots and very positive feelings about the USA and my life with two different backgrounds,” Green said.

Given his potential, Green will have heavy pressure to pick his international allegiances soon. Thus far, he says, he hasn't decided, though he is in discussions with his coaches, family and management about it.

“It is only partially an emotional decision, because there are many different facts you have to consider,” Green said. He broke down his thought process with considerable maturity for a teenager. In the Germany column he puts the greater potential to win a World Cup, his current cultural identity and less travel for international matches. On the U.S. side he mentioned the earnest welcome on the youth teams, more fervent patriotism and the influence of his father and birthplace. “So at the moment I can hardly answer your question,” he said.

Eventually, he'll have to. He'll select one country and only wear its jersey for the course of his international career. The other nation will become the source of tradition, like pepperpot, that only shows somewhere other than the outside of the torso.

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