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....?

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.

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