There is nothing new in international teams seeking an edge through claiming talent with even the most tenuous connections to their countries. But Timor Leste’s attempt to fill their squad with Brazilians is one of the more curious cases of recent times.
Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side of the late-1980s and early-90s was famously boosted by the presence of English, Welsh and Scottish players with a family connection to the Emerald Isle. When Charlton’s team took the field against Italy in the 1990 World Cup quarter-final, the starting line-up saw Donegal’s Pat Bonner, Dublin’s Kevin Moran and Dundalk’s Steve Staunton alongside Glasgow’s Ray Houghton, Liverpool’s John Aldridge and Barnsley’s Mick McCarthy.
For the Irish, many saw the search for players with Irish parents and grandparents as an understandable strategy for strengthening the limited talent pool of a small nation. But bigger countries have also made use of the FIFA rules to bring on board players whose connection is residency rather than blood.
São Paulo native Marcos Senna was given Spanish citizenship after a few years in Spain and the midfielder went on to become a key player in the Euro 2008 triumph. The Spaniards have also recently claimed another Brazilian – Diego Costa – as their own and Deco is yet another Brazilian who played in another country’s colours, after gaining Portuguese citizenship.
The logic of the above examples is apparent. With football the global game and players increasingly mobile, the potential for naturalising players is clear and the family connections cannot be denied.
Some countries, however, are taking it to extremes. In south-east Asia, the Philippines, under former US captain Thomas Dooley, have scoured Europe for players with family links to the Azkals. As a result, they have players who were born and raised in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, Belgium, Australia, Japan and Switzerland in their team. Among them are Surrey-born brothers Phil and James Younghusband, who were in the Chelsea youth team in their younger days, and current Walsall goalkeeper Neil Etheridge.
Through parentage, the Philippines players have a genuine case for playing for their adopted nation, even if it has become strange to see a starting line-up that is more United Nations than a national team. Almost all of the players now ply their trade in the Philippines, making it all seem a little more credible.
To qualify to play for a country in which you are not a citizen, FIFA rules insist on a bloodline that goes back to parents or grandparents or five years of residence from the age of 18. However, what happens if you are a small nation with limited resources and a league that few foreign players would want to play in? The options for the likes of Timor-Leste are scarce to say the least, but that did not stop them from trying.
With a population of just over one million, the former Portuguese colony was taken over by Indonesia in 1975 before gaining independence in 2002. Since then it has struggled to develop its economy and maintain security but it has attempted to boost morale by making its football team more competitive.
There may be an apparent link between Brazil and Timor-Leste given that Portuguese is the shared first language but there is little else to suggest a special relationship that would grant citizenship to several Brazilians plying their trade in other Asian countries.
Timor Leste’s FIFA ranking was 205 back in July 2011. They had just been beaten 7-1 on aggregate by Nepal in the first stage of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Nepal were subsequently defeated 9-0 in Jordan in the next stage. The Timorese had a pretty poor side but things were about to change.
Brazilian coach Antonio Carlos Vieira set about the process of adding several of his countrymen to his squad by means that are still unclear to this day. Of the side humiliated by Nepal, just two survived to start the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifier a year later. The south-east Asian championship is the kind of tournament at which smaller teams can have a shot at glory and this seemed a good stage on which to build something. However, while the two survivors from the World Cup drubbing had clear Timorese credentials, how several others came to be playing for Timor-Leste against Cambodia was somewhat unclear.
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No fewer than seven Brazilians, who had recently been naturalised, started for the Timorese when they faced the Cambodians in Yangon on December 2012. And the improvement was there for all to see as Vieira’s side won 5-1.
The Timorese then lost to hosts Myanmar in the round-robin group before beating Laos 3-1 and losing to Brunei. They missed out on qualification but had performed creditably with their new-look side. One of three players who scored three times in four games was Adelino Trindade – a native of Timor-Leste. The other two – Alan Leandro and Murilo de Almeida – both hailed from Brazil.
The Timorese continued to naturalise Brazilian players and hopes were high that they would take the next step in the evolution by making the finals of south-east Asia’s showpiece tournament in 2014. Unfortunately, the performance was a backwards step as they finished fourth out of five teams in the qualification group in Laos. A victory over Brunei and creditable draw with Myanmar were offset by defeats to Laos and Cambodia – the teams they had beaten comfortably two years earlier.
It was time to up the ante and the Timorese looked to Thailand to identify some more Brazilians ahead of the start of their World Cup qualifying campaign for the 2018 finals in Russia. Heberty Fernandes was the Thai Premier League’s top scorer and player of the year in 2014 and he suddenly found himself a Timorese passport that year. Thiago Cunha – another prolific Brazilian striker in Thailand – also became a naturalised Timorese citizen. Midfield playmaker Juninho had played in Thailand in 2013 before moving to Malaysia to play for Selangor in 2014. He too would become Timorese before returning to Thailand in 2015.
While this was hardly building a squad of world beaters, they were becoming a more experienced group, adding the nous of players who had played at a higher level. It was certainly a group that would help Timor-Leste be competitive if they could get beyond the playoff round and join a group that would feature some of the strongest sides in Asia.
Where they had failed four years previously, the Sol Nascente duly passed the test this time around. In March 2015 in Dili, Timor-Leste dismissed Mongolia by a score of 4-1. They played with six native Timorese players, supported by five Brazilians, naturalised in the previous four years.
This team featured Juninho and Diogo Rangel. Rangel was becoming a mainstay of the team and, like some others, he came through the under-21 and under-23 levels. Rangel has played football across Asian countries, including South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.
Heberty and Cunha were conspicuous by their absence and would never get to play for their new countries as external bodies began to scrutinise this unusual situation. There were vague references to waits for FIFA clearance but this was never, it appears, fully explained.
Mongolia were beaten 1-0 in the return leg and Timor-Leste proceeded to Stage 2 of AFC qualifying in a group that featured Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Malaysia and Palestine. This was an opportunity for the south-east Asians to test themselves against Asian super powers Saudi and the UAE, a team that had reached the last four of the 2015 Asian Cup.
On matchday one, the Timorese travelled to Kuala Lumpur to face Malaysia. The Malaysians were about to embark on a disastrous campaign but were expected to comfortably see off the visitors. Timor-Leste beefed up their Brazilian contingent for this one, starting with seven, compared to four of their own. The ploy worked as Ramon Saro headed in an injury-time equaliser to give the delirious minnows a point.
In the second group game, the Timorese battled hard and were only denied a point by UAE’s outstanding playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, who earned his team a 1-0 victory with 10 minutes to go. It was an impressive performance against a much higher ranked opponent. Timor-Leste’s own ranking would rise to 146 on the back of their positive start to the campaign.
The wheels would come off rather spectacularly when the Timorese travelled to Saudi for the next game and were thrashed 7-0, but they were at least faring better than Malaysia, who lost 10-0 to the UAE on the same night. But the south-east Asians were not deterred and came within minutes of a victory in their next match at home to Palestine. Ramon Saro was again the scorer as he gave the hosts the lead before hearts were broken when Ahmad Abu Nahyeh levelled for the Palestinians in added time for a second 1-1 draw of the campaign.
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The Saudi game apart, Timor-Leste had proved that they could hold their own in the first round of matches. A 1-0 home defeat to Malaysia followed, ensuring they slipped to the bottom of the group but there had been many encouraging signs overall.
Trouble, however, was brewing as Palestine lodged an official complaint with FIFA of the eligibility of Timor-Leste’s Brazilian contingent. Incredibly, after four years of building this hybrid team by naturalising at least 16 Asia-based Brazilians, this was the first time a team had spoken out on the issue. It was also causing a long overdue stir back home with a parliamentary enquiry launched to investigate allegations of corruption and malpractice.
In October 2015, the New York Times ran an article that quoted local soccer activist José Luis de Oliveira as saying: “The Brazilian players, they just come and spend one day and they get a Timorese passport and play in the national team.”
Under pressure from fans and the government and fearing punitive action from FIFA, coach Fernando Alcântara was forced to leave out his Brazilian contingent when he announced his next squad for fixtures away to the UAE and at home to Saudi Arabia. The outcome was comprehensive as the side that had been humiliated by Nepal in 2011 seemed to re-emerge. The UAE thumped their visitors 8-0 and Saudi came away from Dili with a 10-0 victory.
The final group game in March 2016 saw more of the same as Palestine found the Brazilian-less Timorese a much easier nut to crack and hammered them 7-0 in Hebron.
Since the Timorese beat Mongolia to progress to stage 2 of AFC qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, they have failed to win a single game. In fact, in 14 games since the draw with Palestine prompted action to be taken, Timor-Leste have avoided defeat on just one occasion. Ironically, they managed to hold Nepal to a 0-0 draw in the group stage of the recent AFC Solidarity Cup. Rangel usually remains part of the squad but finds himself the lone Brazilian these days.
Heberty has since moved to Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia but has yet to explain why he never took to the field for the country that offered him a passport. The same goes for Cunha, who is now at Mumbai City, along with Uruguay legend Diego Forlán.
A player who has spoken out on the issue is Jesse Pinto. The Australian qualified to play for Timor-Leste through his parents but didn’t like what he saw as exploitation of young Brazilians. He suggested some had been brought to the country despite limited ability and were not always well looked after. He told ABC News: “These players that are coming, they are playing at small clubs, they probably are playing for free. I’m not saying they are bad players, but they are not playing in big clubs in Brazil … that’s why they are coming to Timor. For some of them, it was a very difficult time as well. They didn’t know how they were going to get back home.”
Rangel survived the Brazilian cull but did not give sufficient detail to explain why he remains and others have been discarded. He said: “Yes I’m still playing. Now, about the rest I do not know. It should be the coach’s choice.”
The whole episode remains shrouded in mystery and no sanctions have ever been taken against the Timorese, meaning that no wrongdoing has officially been proven. If there was a breach of the rules in fielding the players that they did, FIFA should have been duty bound to take action. The world’s governing body remains mired in its own corruption scandals and perhaps hasn’t had time to look at this one too closely. Or did genuine loopholes exist that allowed the acquisition of several young Brazilians who could make Timor Leste’s national team a force to be reckoned with?
The stench of corruption hangs over the affair and perhaps it is only the remoteness of the team that has prevented it becoming a much bigger issue. It is impossible to imagine that a more prominent nation could have got away with a similar stunt. Without action, the rules remain open to abuse. One look at the Azerbaijan line-up in 2016’s FIFA Futsal World Cup would tell you that many of their squad did not hail from the same side of the world as Baku.
For now, Timor-Leste appear to have learned their lesson but also appear to have got off scot-free with what seemed to be a clear breach of FIFA rules in full view.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK