Citizenship and eligibility in an age of mercenaries

Handball.mforos and various Spanish sports media have reported about a situation that seems to have the potential for becoming increasingly common. With the steady trend for top players to move from handball countries without financially strong clubs and leagues to a number of countries where lucrative contracts and a comfortable living environment can be obtained, the strong sense of loyalty to one’s nationality seems to be diminished.

If one spends many years in a particular country, chances are that the loyalties can become a bit divided. Moreover, certain countries have much more flexible immigration and naturalization laws than others. Austria is one example, and the impact this had on women’s handball was obvious during extended periods. Players recruited to Hypo, especially from the Balkans, from ex-Soviet Union and from Hungary, soon found themselves in a position where they had met the legal requirement to become Austrian citizens and theoretically eligible for the Austrian national team.

Of course, as a way of maintaining some seriousness and to avoid having players switching national teams too often and too conveniently, the IHF and the EHF have regulations that require a reasonable gap. Players cannot just stop playing for one national team, and shortly thereafter, with a new nationality, show up in another event for another national team. But if players and federations have patience and do some planning, clearly there is still room for such changes. Of course, the reactions in the player’s native country are typically not entirely positive…

The probably best known case of ‘migration’ is that of the Belarus native Siarhei Rutenka. He moved to the club Celje in Slovenia, and soon obtained citizenship in accordance with the laws of that country. He most definitively became a valuable member of the Slovenian national team. But as so often happens these days, he moved on to Spain, in order to play for Barcelona. It did not take long for Spanish handball fans, and perhaps also for the Federation, to start ‘drooling’ about the prospects of having Rutenka switch nationality once again and eventually become eligible for the Spanish national team.

But it appears Rutenka developed other ideas. He obtained his Spanish citizenship, as Spain is another country with very easy requirements, but now it appears that he has become nostalgic to the point of ‘completing the circle’. In other words, he has also acquired a Belarus citizenship and really wants to play for the Belarus team, not for Spain. There is, however, one little twist to this, something that Rutenka might have overlooked after his experience with easy switches. He wants to stay in Barcelona, but there is no recognition of dual citizenship between the two countries, so he may be in danger of losing his Spanish citizenship. This in turn may have implications for his future options in terms of place of residence after his days as a handball players are over.

And now a somewhat similar case is beginning to cause frustration in Hungary. One of this country’s most popular and valuable players is Laszlo Nagy, another member of the Barcelona club team. It seems he has now made it clear to the Hungarian federation that they should not count on him in the future. So he might become the player soon eligible to reinforce the Spanish national team instead.