Philippe Amarante is a Managing Partner at Henley & Partners and the Head of the firm’s Dubai and Pakistan offices.
Shan Nagar is a Client Advisor at Henley & Partners’ Dubai office.
The growing phenomenon of athletes representing countries other than those of their birth has been attributed to three main factors — sportspersons acquiring additional citizenships through ancestral connections, natural migration, and special sports migration. At the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, around 5% of players represented countries that were not the nations of their birth. By the time of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, 16.5% of all players were born in countries other than the ones they represented (what we call ‘cross-border’ athletes).
With an increasing number of international sporting events and tournaments, not to mention the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, elite athletes and organizing bodies are embracing the concept of global mobility and rethinking traditional concepts of residence and citizenship. Leagues and national teams are looking beyond their borders to field the strongest possible rosters, and while talented sportspersons must be internationally mobile so that they can compete globally, athletes from countries with weaker passports can face stricter visa scrutiny, lengthy processing times, and heavily backlogged or understaffed local embassies when traveling for competitions.
Sports is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, and the past 12 months have been a momentous time for international sports. From 2022 to 2023, 10 world cup sporting competitions were held — for basketball, cricket, football, hockey, and netball. Aside from capturing the excitement of billions around the world, due to the increasing number of players who migrate to and compete for new countries, sporting events also brought into focus a rapidly evolving issue: what is nationality, and who is entitled to it?
Migration has been a core aspect of our humanity for as long as we have walked the earth. But today, it is becoming an increasingly complex phenomenon, as we try to impose the concepts of nationality on our natural human need and instinct to migrate. People move, just like they have always done. Furthermore, according to the OECD, the rate of migration is growing.
This reality is driven by economic disparities, climate change, and the natural human aspiration for better opportunities.
A recent analysis found that a high proportion of cross-border players at the 2022 FIFA World Cup — 71% — were competing though their ancestral connections by playing for countries from which their parents or grandparents originated. A smaller number had changed their national affiliation through natural migration to a new country, and by far the smallest proportion had acquired their new citizenship thanks solely to their sporting ability.
Top professional leagues around the world have also historically relied on players born in other countries to maintain or raise the league’s calibre. Recent percentages of cross-border athletes in US Major League Baseball (28%), the English Premier League (63%), and Spain’s La Liga (38%) are testament to this fact. Global competitions like Formula One, ATP and WTA tennis, and DP World Tour golf also consist of individual athletes representing dozens of distinct nationalities, traveling year-round across the globe to compete at the highest level.
The 2022 World Cup helped spark a shift in the traditional nationality mindset, when the host nation of Qatar fielded a team in which 38% of the players were reportedly not native-born Qataris. Like Qatar, many nations have the sovereign right to grant citizenship to individuals with assets or abilities that can materially benefit the country and its people. This can be done via so-called ‘Olympic citizenship’ (sports migration), which is when top-performing athletes are able to naturalize or obtain legal residence in return for representing their new country in international events, with the aim of raising the country’s profile.
When cross-border sportspersons are offered the chance to compete in or for a new country, fans and teams alike benefit from receiving talented players. The nations and leagues benefit from enhanced diversity, talent, and visibility on the international stage, while the athletes themselves have newfound agency to optimize their own global mobility, broadening their athletic career horizons and protecting their post-career access as global citizens.
Although the numbers are relatively low, acquiring citizenship through athletic prowess is far from being a rarity (and like citizenship by investment) dates back to Ancient Greece. Olympic citizenship has become mainstream, as countries facilitate naturalization for exceptional athletes who might in return achieve glory for their adoptive countries at global sporting events such as the Olympic Games. Interestingly, the Olympic Charter stipulates that to compete on a national team, athletes are required to obtain that nationality.
Sports citizenship policies parallel those of investment migration programs, through which high-net-worth and highly skilled individuals are granted residence rights in or citizenship of a particular country once they make a qualifying investment in the host country’s economy. Like citizenship acquired due to sporting ability, citizenship by investment allows individuals to gain a particular citizenship once they are recognized as being able to add value to their new country. The investment of an athlete’s own talent is a form of capital in its own right.
For sporting nations, that value might take the form of a goal scored at the FIFA World Cup, a table tennis gold medal, or a qualification for the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup. In the case of investors and businesspeople, by injecting funds into the national fiscus, creating opportunities, and enabling developmental partnerships with local businesses, citizens naturalized through investment help to directly enrich their new home country.
Whether they hail from emergent nations or established global powers, sports migration can grant invaluable opportunities for athletes and their families. For a West African footballer playing in the Premier League, or a top Eastern European tennis star on the ATP Tour, their athletic success allows them to build a career and a life for their family that transcends their home borders.
For the majority of athletes who haven’t gained incredible global stature, decisions about their global mobility can be quickly taken out of their hands. A non-renewal of contract, a career-ending injury, or fully external factors can result in the loss of residence and work permit rights, forcing an athlete and their family to leave a country where they may have lived for many years. For instance, in the midst of the 2022 US Major League Baseball ‘lockout’, when the league went on strike to negotiate a new collective agreement, dozens of Latin American players found themselves out of contract, and therefore had no valid visa status in the US. Unable to access training facilities and other vital athletic resources, these players faced enormous uncertainty over their ability to re-sign with a team and continue their lives in the US.
For these elite athletes, investment migration is not just a helpful tool, but a necessary safeguard to protect their global access after their time competing in sports. With the myriad program options available around the world today, athletes are in a position to tailor their residence or citizenship planning to fit their unique career needs. A cross-border footballer in Spain’s La Liga may be looking to buy a local house for their family; for EUR 500,000, the footballer can obtain not only a valuable property asset but also a Spanish residence permit for their whole family, not contingent upon their athletic career. Following a breakout season on the PGA Tour, a foreign golfer could invest their winnings in a US EB-5 visa project, granting them and their family green cards and the ability to live and compete in the US year-round. In any scenario, this optionality affords athletes a level of long-term global mobility and stability that cannot be obtained from their careers alone.
While there is debate around acquired nationality, citizenship programs offer a net benefit for citizens and nations alike. They also demonstrate a positive, progressive take on citizenship. In many ways this is an authentic form of patriotism — an interest in the good of the nation — as opposed to somewhat reactionary concepts such as nativism and nationalism, which look to the past to define an identity. What this approach to citizenship coveys is an understanding of the evolving complexity of identity and the ancient human proclivity for migration.
Whether for sports, for success, or for pure survival, we move. And as we do so, we bring our talents, our assets, and our potential with us. We deploy those for the benefit of our new home. And — if everything works well — for the benefit of society at large.