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Monday, March 22, 2010
Rising star Torres faced tough decision

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

The summer of 2008 was approaching, and Jose Francisco Torres had a decision to make. The coach of the U.S. Olympic soccer team, Peter Nowak, wanted the young midfielder on his squad for the tournament in China.

But Torres, who had joined Mexican club team Pachuca's youth ranks straight out of high school in Longview, Texas, had other plans. Nearly four years of hard work were about to pay off. The Pachuca coach was offering the 20-year-old a first-team place for the upcoming season, but only if he stayed with the team over the summer. So the young Mexican-American gave up the chance to play in the Olympics, turning down Nowak and by proxy the United States.

Jose Francisco Torres
Torres plays for Pachuca in Mexico but ultimately chose the U.S. as his national team.

It wouldn't be long before Torres would get another chance to declare his soccer allegiance to his country of birth, though. He was capped by the full national team in the fall of that year.

"I decided to play for the United States -- that was my choice all along," Torres said, preparing for the home stretch of the Mexican season, followed by what he hopes will be a trip to South Africa. "The opportunity came with the national team, and I took it. My goal now is to get to the World Cup."

But there's another side to the story of the man known in Mexico as "El Gringo." Many south of the border maintain that Torres originally turned down the United States because he was hoping for a call from Mexico, the nation that gave him the chance to flourish as a professional and his father's native land.

Whether that version is wishful thinking by Mexicans, to whom the talent of the now-22-year-old Torres is clear, or simply a convenient explanation, whispered by some close to the player to help make life livable south of the border for a dual-national who now represents Mexico's biggest soccer rival, one thing is for certain: El Gringo is not alone.

As globalization continues to shrink the planet in many ways, soccer has thrived more than ever as the world's game, one that transcends borders. Perhaps one of the more interesting effects globalization has had on the game -- far less mundane than the hoards of cash super-clubs have figured out how to make by capitalizing on soccer fever worldwide -- is the emergence of scores of dual-nationals: soccer players with more than one nationality and allegiance, forced to choose just one country to represent in sport.

The United States, traditionally a country of immigrants, has its fair share. Many of those who will represent the U.S. in South Africa inherited their affection for the game from parents who came from abroad. Oguchi Onyewu, Benny Feilhaber, Charlie Davies and Stuart Holden are some who join Torres on that list -- any could have chosen to play for another country. A couple of potential dual-national stars have escaped American clutches in recent years as well, most notably New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi, who scored twice for Italy in a Confederations Cup match with the Americans last year, and Bosnian-Serb Neven Subotic, a U.S. citizen who will play for Serbia at the World Cup after turning out for American youth teams in the past.

In the age of migration, dual-nationals are hardly a uniquely American issue. Rare will be the competitive team at this year's World Cup that doesn't count a number of them among its ranks. Some countries even go so far as to bestow citizenship upon promising players from abroad who perform well in their national leagues, although naturalization policies that vary from accommodating (think Italy or Mexico) to long and complicated (the U.S. and Japan) make nationalization a separate if related issue.

No matter the route to citizenship, the 2010 World Cup provides an interesting perspective on the shrinking globe. A few of the more unique and notable cases on display in South Africa will be Gonzalo Higuain, a French-born forward who debated playing for France before deciding to represent Argentina; Liedson, a naturalized Portuguese striker who didn't leave Brazil until he was 25 but now will play against that country in the World Cup; and Peter Odemwingie, a Nigerian born in the former Soviet Union who has never lived in Africa but will represent the Super Eagles at the World Cup on that continent.

Those stories hint at why few issues in the world of soccer have inspired so much emotion, much of it negative. The international game understandably arouses nationalist feelings for many fans, and the idea of being snubbed by a fellow citizen for another country would seem to be irreconcilable with that patriotism. It is simply impossible for most to put themselves in the shoes of a player loyal to more than one flag.

"Each player knows that it's a really difficult decision for an individual," Torres said. "I think it's the player's decision in the end, irrespective of what's said in the press or in general. In my case, my family helped a lot, and I spoke with some other experienced players who have been through similar things."

Edgar Castillo also understands both sides of the story. Another Mexican-American who developed his game south of the border, the New Mexico-born left back first chose to play for Mexico before reconsidering his decision and switching to the U.S. last year. He now is on the fringe of the World Cup team and, like Torres, hopes to wear the red, white and blue in South Africa. But Castillo has found that teetering between two countries has in some respects made him persona non grata on both sides of the border.

"They killed me here in the Mexican press," Castillo said after his switch. "It was a little exaggerated; they were very mad. When you have two nationalities, you have two. You love the two countries but you have to see in soccer terms where you fit in."

FIFA has begun to make a few clumsy approaches at dealing with the issue. Last year, the global body opened the door for more players to switch national allegiance at an older age, and it has suggested the process of nationalizing players with no previous links to a country be examined.

With no foreseeable end to the international movements of people and players, though, dual-nationals are certain to become even more common in coming years. In turn, much controversy and angst will continue to be generated, particularly in countries that lose recruiting battles for top players. For future dual-nationals in the shoes of Torres and Castillo, the choice won't get any easier.

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.