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CONCACAF Is Clueless on Armas Ruling

November 11, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES

So, the United States has managed to bully CONCACAF into again bending the rules in its favor.

How else to explain the deplorable decision by soccer's regional governing body, which last week ruled that Chicago Fire midfielder Chris Armas is eligible to play for the U.S. national team, even though he already had played five times for Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth but is viewed as a separate country in sports circles and FIFA rules clearly state that a player cannot represent more than one country. Once you have played for one, you can't play for another.

But lately that logical, correct position has been stretched and pulled out of all recognition as countries seek loopholes.

Lately, as in the Armas case, countries are arguing that international games that are merely "friendlies" and not part of any official FIFA competition, such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games, should not count.

That road leads to chaos.

It's not a new phenomenon. Italy, half a century ago, added all sorts of quasi-Italians to its national team, many from South America. One of the world's greatest players, Alfredo di Steffano, managed to play for both Argentina and Spain in the 1950s.

More recently, countries such as Ireland have made a mockery of nationality by selecting players with only the flimsiest connections to the country. Former coach Jack Charlton's logic was, "If you've flown over Dublin, you're Irish."

The U.S. has also taken that route, conferring citizenship upon assorted Germans and Frenchmen simply so they could play for the national team.

In some cases--Thomas Dooley is a good example--it has worked out well. Dooley moved to the U.S., settled here and is as American as, say, Eric Wynalda. In other cases--Michael Mason and David Wagner come to mind--that policy has not worked out. They were German then, they are German now.

But now, in the case of Armas, the U.S. has gone even further. And it is not the first time. The U.S. also got CONCACAF's approval to play Martin Vasquez after Vasquez had represented Mexico.

That is not to say that Armas, 26, is not a good enough player to represent the U.S. He is and in fact made his debut on Friday night in a dreary 0-0 tie with Australia in San Jose.

Nor is it to suggest that having been born in one of two New York boroughs--the Bronx, according to the Fire; Brooklyn, according to U.S. Soccer--Armas is not American.

But which is his "country" of choice? The U.S. or Puerto Rico, where his parents were born?

"I'm very excited that this has been settled and that I can now play for the United States," Armas was quoted as saying last week. "It's been my dream to play for my country, and I'm grateful that U.S. Soccer took the time and made the effort to allow me to play."

But if Armas was that patriotic and had that burning desire to wear a U.S. national team jersey, why did he play those five games for Puerto Rico in 1993 and 1994? Did he tell the people of Puerto Rico what a dream it was to play for them?

According to Arnie Ramirez, who coached Puerto Rico at the time, Armas knew the choice he was making.

"The thing is, Chris was overlooked by all the [U.S.] coaches when he was 18, 19 and 20. And we said to him, 'Chris, you know that if you play for Puerto Rico you won't be able to play for the United States.' And he said, 'I know, but nobody has ever picked me for anything, so I'd like to play for Puerto Rico.' "

Ramirez, who coached soccer at Long Island University for 20 years, is bewildered by the reasoning behind CONCACAF's decision.

"I'm happy for Chris that he's playing for the United States because he's a real good player and he was overlooked, but . . ."

The problem lies with FIFA, which has to make its rules clear and insist that CONCACAF and other confederations abide by them. As matters stand, all that is required to prove nationality is a U.S. passport, to which Puerto Ricans are entitled.

So when qualifying begins for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games or the 2002 World Cup, Puerto Rico can, legally, call up virtually any Americn player it wants. Even newcomers such as Clint Mathis or Carlos Llamosa or Ben Olsen who made their U.S. debut Friday night.

If the U.S. can slip through a loophole, why not Puerto Rico?

Having seen how well Armas played for the Galaxy in 1996 and '97 and for the Fire in '98, U.S. Soccer wanted him on its team. It's peculiar, though, that he wasn't that highly thought of before World Cup '98. Perhaps that's because then-coach Steve Sampson correctly considered him ineligible.

But now, after a phone call here and a bit of arm-twisting there, suddenly Armas is free.

"In the statement from CONCACAF officials to U.S. Soccer Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher, it was noted that none of the appearances for Puerto Rico had compromised Armas' U.S. eligibility," a federation news release stated.

Presumably, that settles it.

Presumably, Armas will play for the U.S. from now on.

Presumably, Puerto Rico can protest all it wants, to no avail.

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