Gedion Zelalem, the 18-year-old Arsenal youth player who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in December, has been called up by Germany’s under-18 national team.
Zelalem was born in Germany but lived in the Washington, D.C. area from ages 9 to 15, when he entered the Arsenal academy. He played on German youth teams growing up, but declined an invitation to play for Germany’s under-17 team in 2014.
It’s unknown if he’ll accept the invitation to play for the under-18 team.
Zelalem is regarded as one of the most promising youth prospects in England. He has appeared in the FA Cup and a Champions League game, but has yet to debut for the first team in the Premier League.
The U.S. is in the process of filing an exception with FIFA that would make him eligible to play for the U.S. immediately. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told ESPNFC he hoped the paperwork would be done by April.
FIFA requires naturalized citizens to live in a country for five years after age 18 for them to play for the national team. An exception — which FIFA has granted liberally in the past, ESPNFC reports — would allow him to bypass that rule and play right away.
Soccer writer Ives Galarcep speculated on Twitter that the German under-18 call-up could be a ploy to make FIFA think twice about approving the exception:
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently said that Zelalem could walk into the U.S. first team once he’s eligible. That’s something that Germany, the reigning World Cup winners, cannot offer the 18-year-old. While Germany is the more prestigious team, there’s no guarantee that Zelalem — even if he goes on to have a successful career — will ever break into the first team, much less play in a major competition.
Klinsmann has been aggressive in recruiting dual nationals since he took over, particularly German-Americans. There were five German-Americans on the 23-man World Cup roster in Brazil.
Ultimately, it could come down to which country Zelalem identifies with more strongly. He was born in Berlin, but spent his formative years in the D.C. area.
“If you speak to Gedion, it sounds like you’re speaking to an American,” Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger told SI’s Jeff Bradley last summer. “And, certainly, when we found him, he was living in D.C. and thinking of himself as a young U.S. kid.”
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