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Report: Zelalem Ineligible to Play for USMNT, Seeking Exemption

Well that's certainly a plot twist.

Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Gedion Zelalem has already had to go through a bevy of bureaucratic red tape to become eligible to play for the United States Men's National Team. According to an ESPN FC report, he's got more ahead of him.

Doug McIntyre is reporting that Zelalem must live in the United States for five years after his 18th birthday, which was yesterday, in order to obtain eligibility to play for the USMNT.

Pursuant to Rule 7 found on Page 64 of the FIFA Statutes, a player who obtains a new nationality is eligible to play for said nation after satisfying one of the following: 1) born in said nation, 2) biological parents born in said nation, 3) grandparents born in said nation, or 4) has lived in said nation for 5 years consecutively after player's 18th birthday.

Those four requirements pose a problem for Gedion and the USMNT. Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian immigrants. He has no American grandparents. He is also currently residing in London.

McIntyre does state that there is an exception to this rule which waives the Rule 7 requirement if it can be shown that the player's naturalization did not violate the spirit of the rule. He states that the United States Soccer Federation is confident they can obtain this exception, including optimistic quotes from Sunil Gulati, who sits on FIFA's Executive Committee.

As McIntyre notes, the rule was presumably set in place to dissuade nations from naturalizing (and presumably paying) talented players to strengthen their national teams. Clearly, Zelalem's naturalization does not violate the spirit of the law. He came over to the States at a young age and clearly has an attachment to the nation. His formative years were spent in Maryland. Listen to him speak in any video interview available and he sounds like any annoying American teenager you know, right down to his love of Eminem.

If there is an exception, which I could not independently verify through my quick skim of FIFA's statutes, Zelalem should easily qualify for it and be available for the USMNT early this year. If there is no exception or FIFA does something shady (never!) and does not grant it, then Zelalem's status is very much up in the air. An extremely talented prospect, it will be awhile before Zelalem lives and plays in the United States. At that point, his best bet is getting an apartment at the US Embassy in London.