Nationality transfers in sports will always elicit much debate. An athlete suits up for the national team in one country, then for whatever reason(s), decides that they want to play for another country. You can understandably see why there would be public outrage in these situations but it is, after all, the athlete’s right to play for whichever nation he or she chooses, assuming they are eligible.
The most recent notable example of country-swapping is on display at the Women’s World Cup. If you’ve been paying attention to the United States team, then you should be familiar with Sydney Leroux’s story. She was born in Canada, played for the Canadian junior team at the 2004 U-19 Women’s World Cup, and was named captain of that squad a year later. But she always maintained that her dream was to suit up for the Red, White, and Blue and with her father being American, she was eligible to represent either side. Leroux finally received clearance from FIFA in 2008 to switch to the American side but there has been backlash from the Canadians she left. She is a frequent source of disdain whenever she steps foot on a Canadian pitch and that has been evident throughout this World Cup.
Here is a look at six of the biggest nationality transfers across sports:
1. Alex Rodriguez – From United States to Dominican Republic
Controversy with A-Rod? No Way! After suiting up for the United States team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, Rodriguez announced that he would play for the Dominican Republic team at the 2009 event. However, a hip injury ultimately forced Rodriguez to withdraw in 2009, robbing many baseball fans of yet another reason to boo the Yankees’ slugger. The eligibility rules of the WBC are not as strict as those of the IOC but imagine the outrage if a player represented his birth country in one Olympics and then switched allegiances to another country at the subsequent Olympic Games.
2. Hakeem Olajuwon – From Nigeria to United States
With all due to David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon was the center many American fans wanted when the Dream Team was announced in 1991. But the Nigerian-born Olajuwon was not yet an American citizen and was thus, ineligible. The Dream played for Nigeria’s junior national team in 1980, but after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1993, he was given clearance by FIBA to suit up for Team USA and he did that in route to a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics.
3. Charlie Villanueva – From United States to Dominican Republic
Like Rodriguez, Villanueva was born in the United States to Dominican parents. In 2004 Charlie V won a gold medal with the U-20 USA Basketball Team; however, the man whose last name literally translates to “new town” expressed a desire to obtain Dominican citizenship to play for their national team. That request was finally granted in 2009 and later that year he played in the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship for the DR. Brimming with young talent, USA Basketball put up virtually no resistance to the move and stated: “USA Basketball does not have plans for [Villanueva] to be a member of future USA national teams.” Meanwhile, Villanueva was later cut from the Dominican national team by head coach John Calipari for being “overweight”.
4. Becky Hammon – From United States to Russia
Most know Hammon as either the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history or for her distinguished WNBA career. But Hammon was also one of the first notable athletes to obtain citizenship from another country in order to play for their national team. After winning a gold medal with Team USA in the 1998 Williams Jones Cup, Hammon was then repeatedly passed over when it came to selections for more prestigious tournaments. In 2008, after playing for CSKA Moscow during the WNBA offseason, Hammon became a Russian citizen and was selected for their national team. She would go on to represent Russia over the next five years and won a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
5. Diego Costa – From Brazil to Spain
During the 2013-14 season, perhaps no soccer player in the world was hotter than Diego Costa. The Atletico Madrid star led his team to its first La Liga championship since 1996 and ended the nine-year championship run by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. But there may have also been no player more controversial than Costa during this time due to his waffling of national teams. On March 5 2013, the Brazilian-born Costa received a call-up to join his native national team and he played in two friendlies. Exactly one year later on March 5, 2014, Costa then made his debut for the Spanish national team. In between, Costa had stated a desire to play for Spain and Brazil’s head coach essentially kicked him off their team and the Brazilian Football Confederation tried to strip Costa of his Brazilian citizenship entirely. In the 2014 World Cup, hosted by Brazil, Costa was unsurprisingly booed every time he touched the ball and failed to score after netting 36 goals in all competitions during his previous club season.
6. Kevin-Prince Boateng – From Germany to Ghana
Born in Germany but of Ghanaian descent, Boateng was a fixture on the German junior teams and even had the Goal of the Month in a match in the 2005 UEFA U-19 Championships. However, the U-21 German coach said he would not select Boateng for his team due to him breaking curfew at a tournament in 2007. Suddenly, Boateng wanted off of the German squad and he made the infamous quote to FIFA, “I feel increasingly Ghanaian”. That Ghanaian feeling led to him switching his allegiance to the Ghana national team whom he debuted for in 2010. At the 2014 World Cup Boateng was sent home and suspended from the team after verbally abusing manager James Appiah. No word on if he’s feeling “decreasingly Ghanaian” after the incident.