Immigration and International Soccer: The Immigrants on the Sidelines of the World Cup
Time 3 Minute Read

Sunday as the country watched the US women cruise to victory over the Dutch, some immigration lawyers were wondering:

How many of the players are immigrants?

We know soccer teams draw their stars from around the world. For example:

  • the current Manchester United F.C. first-team squad features players from 14 different countries,
  • the current D.C. United MLS team features players from 10 countries, and
  • the Washington Spirit, DC’s local women’s professional team that includes Rose Lavelle who scored a beautiful goal in the World Cup Final, features players from 3 countries.

This has even been true in international competition. As recently as the 2018 men’s World Cup, teams were notably diverse. The Moroccan team had the greatest percentage of foreign-born players, with 61% born outside of Morocco, and many other teams had a large percentage of players from migrant backgrounds.

However, that diversity is not present in the international women’s game. The vast majority of players on the US and Dutch teams from this weekend’s final were native born. This may be due to the fact that the women’s game is still relatively young, or due to FIFA’s National Team Eligibility Rules. Whatever it is, of the 46 players capped for the final, only one player was not born in the country she represented – Liza Estafany van de Most, a Dutch defender, was born in Colombia and adopted by a Dutch family as an infant.

So where are the immigrants at the World Cup? Look to the sidelines.

While countries are restricted to fielding just citizen players in the World Cup, those same rules do not apply to coaching staff. As many companies know, sometimes the search for the best person for the job is an international search, and companies who want the best talent often end up going abroad to find it.

So too do soccer teams, and in this year’s World Cup, twenty-five percent of head coaches were not native-born citizens of the country whose team they managed.

This includes Team USA’s Coach Jill Ellis, who was born in the United Kingdom and immigrated to the United States in her youth. Other non-native-born coaches include Canada’s Danish coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, and the coaches of Nigeria and Norway, both of whom are from Sweden.

The number of international coaches is even more notable in men’s soccer. In the 2018 men’s World Cup, 13 of the 32 teams competing had non-native-born coaches. 40 percent! Some of the coaches have coached multiple international teams during their career. For example, Carlos Queiroz, who coached the Iranian team during the 2018 World Cup, has had quite the immigration story. He was born a Portuguese citizen in what is now Mozambique. He never appeared in an international match as a player, but has coached the national teams of Portugal, the UAE, and South Africa, and also coached club teams in the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Spain. He is currently the coach for the Colombian national team.

We know businesses like those involved in financial services, information technology, and healthcare are increasingly crossing borders in search of needed talent, and that workers are willing to change countries in pursuit of opportunities. Looking at the World Cup, we see the business of sports reflecting the same immigration trends.

Where are the immigrants? Everywhere.

  • Associate

    Lieselot is a global immigration and labor and employment lawyer advising companies on immigration processes around the world.

    With experience guiding companies and individuals through immigration processes in the US and ...


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