You've all heard about the new rule instituted by FIFA where players over twenty-one, once considered cap tied, were now international free agents. Whereas once a player would be considered safe after his twenty-first birthday, he is now fair game once more, and those of us who thought we had a young star sewn up must once again live in fear.
However, there's a lot of confusion regarding the new rule, not to mention a lot of speculation. So, as a public service to the Canadian footballing world, I will field seven hypothetical questions to remove all doubt on the relevant issues.
Also, I hadn't written a post in, like, a week, and this was 1,400 cheap words.
1) So what, exactly, was the old rule?
Back in the days of yore, a player could be cap tied in two manners. First, he could play a senior match at a FIFA-sanctioned tournament: the World Cup, the Confederations Cup, a continental championship, or qualifying for the same. Second, he could make his final decision on his twenty-first birthday. Once he turned twenty-one, that decision was carved in stone except in unusual cases like a country ceasing to exist.
2) What's changed?
Your twenty-first birthday no longer has any significance. Until you play a senior match at a FIFA-sanctioned tournament, you are completely fair game. You can play a billion U-20 matches, live in Canada your whole life, eat poutine and drink Rickard's Red, have a Danish grandfather and go play for Denmark because you think the women are better looking. By making the world of international football even more mercenary and less about representing your homeland on the world stage, players will get more money and everybody will win except for idiot fans.
The punchline is that it's all retroactive, so players who had formerly been tied to one country can now do what they feel like.
3) Why, how could this happen?
At the FIFA general meeting earlier this month, Algeria put forward a motion to abolish the 21-years-old restriction, and the motion was passed with a 58% vote in favour. This was portrayed as a "surprise" and almost as a spur-of-the-moment decision by the board, but if you believe that I have some northern Ontario swamp land to sell you.
4) Since you know CONCACAF's going to get screwed somehow, how did Blatter manage to slide the knife between our ribs this time?
This isn't an issue for the teams in the hex, but the rest of CONCACAF gets reamed in the short term by this rule. UEFA, to pick one example, is in the middle of the first stage of World Cup qualifying with all teams still participating. CONMEBOL is also in World Cup qualifying but they have their final matches in October. The Africans are in their third round, but their third round has twenty teams in it. But the small federations get reamed. Asia will have only one team playing in October (the winner of Bahrain - Saudi Arabia against New Zealand for the last World Cup spot) and CONCACAF will have the six teams in the hex. In Asia's case, the teams that have already qualified for the World Cup could of course cap players there, but one suspects they won't use the World Cup for too much experimentation.
Why is October so significant? Because October is when the rule takes effect. Every team in UEFA and CONMEBOL as well as twenty African teams play World Cup qualifying matches in October, allowing them to cap tie players almost immediately. But only six teams from CONCACAF, one from the AFC, and one from the OFC get the same privilege. Bosnia could cap Asmir Begovic, if he was willing, on the fourteenth of October (they probably won't because it'll be a vital match against Spain, but they could). But if Jonathan De Guzman had second thoughts and wanted to play for Canada, we could put him in friendlies but not seal him up until the 2011 Gold Cup.
There would have been an incredibly easy fix to this. Have the rule come into effect on July 1 instead of October 1, and the problem almost disappears in CONCACAF, where a dozen nations could call new players to the 2009 Gold Cup rosters. Even Asia, which is almost done their qualification, would have one more team with an opportunity. But one suspects that screwing the smaller federations isn't a bug to FIFA, it's a feature.
5) Mother of pearl! Well, who do we stand to lose from this ruling?
There are a few players who could theoretically jump ship, but most of them wouldn't be missed. The only name anyone is worried about is Asmir Begovic, who was born in Bosnia but lived in Canada from an early age and, after some tension, committed to us on his twenty-first birthday. Bosnia is known to be interested in Begovic and the extent to which Begovic returns the interest is unclear. We know that Hart wanted Begovic for the Gold Cup squad, but Begovic is currently expecting the birth of his first child and quite reasonably decided to stay home.
Theoretically, Simeon Jackson could pull a Tomasz Radzinski, stay home from the Gold Cup without telling anyone, then suit up with his native Jamaica. But I'm going to go ahead and not worry about that.
6) Well, okay, who can we get?
To my knowledge, there's no registry of uncapped players with Canadian grandparents kicking around Europe, which is a shame because it would come in handy about now. O'Brian White is a possibility: a 23-year-old striker drafted last year by Toronto FC, White is Jamaican to the core but has a Canadian mother and lived in Scarborough starting when he was seventeen. Since White now plays professionally in Canada and was a part of Jamaica's youth setup before he moved here, it's possible he may have had a change of heart - certainly, Jamaica's been in no rush to call him up (he's not even on their Gold Cup roster).
Another name is 34-year-old San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon. Cannon is eligible for Canada through his father. He has capped twice for the United States but both appearances were in friendlies; he was on the American roster for the 2003 Confederations Cup but never appeared. He's no spring chicken but he's a capable goalkeeper and he could play with Hirschfeld and Begovic on my 2014 World Cup team.
7) Nobody cares about elderly MLS goalkeepers! Let's get to the good stuff: do you think Jonathan De Guzman will come back to Canada?
Jonathan hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire since he committed to the Netherlands. Injuries and poor play have dogged him, and he still hasn't gotten a look from the full Dutch national team. There's not even much buzz around him at the club level these days: it's like he's fallen off the face of the Earth. The Dutch grabbed him, now he can't play for anyone else, if he gets good we'll talk but for now forget about him. That sort of thing. It's only gotten worse since Marco Van Basten left: he seemed to be Jonathan's biggest backer other than Julian at times.
Now, the Dutch are not stupid. I'm willing to bet that De Guzman is getting at least a ninetieth-minute appearance in a World Cup qualifying match as soon as they can pay for the airfare. But Jonathan De Guzman isn't stupid either. If he realizes that he's an extra cog in the Dutch machine and they don't so much want him as want to make sure that nobody else gets him, that could be a big factor. And Jonathan still has serious sentimental attachment to Canada. Sure, he picked the Netherlands because he wants to win trophies, but if he realizes the Dutch don't care whether he lives or dies, he might give us a bit of a longer look.
And, of course, there's always the chance that the Dutch rate Jonathan so lowly these days they won't bother trying to cap him. It looks a lot more possible than it did last year.