Over the next few days, weeks, months, probably years, you are going to hear a lot about Gedion Zelalem.
He is the 16-year-old Arsenal central midfielder who, while playing for the English club’s first team in preseason, mesmerized unsuspecting observers with his vision, touch and distribution. Without pause, he drew comparisons to Cesc Fabregas, a Spanish innovator with corresponding characteristics who debuted for the Gunners’ senior squad at the same age 10 years ago.
From Pele to Lionel Messi, teenage phenoms have tickled the soccer world for decades.
Zelalem is different from most because:
— He was not nurtured in a prominent academy.
— Until this past spring, his name was largely unknown, even in Arsenal circles.
— He was raised in Germany but draws from family roots in Ethiopia, a nation of 91 million that adores the sport but has never qualified for the World Cup and reached the African Cup on Nations once in the past 20 years. Already, he is inspiring young Ethiopians.
There is something else unique about Zelalem: He sharpened his skills between ages 9 and 15 in the Washington suburbs, playing for an elite club team, Olney Rangers. He also served on Walter Johnson High School’s varsity squad as a freshman in the fall of 2011, earning honorable mention All-Met honors after the Wildcats advanced to the Maryland state final.
A year ago, he was hanging out with friends at Montgomery Mall. Today, he is traveling the world with Arsenal star Theo Walcott and creating a buzz in north London.
With Zelalem’s American ties, curiosity about possible U.S. eligibility is beginning to simmer. He carries a German passport and, from all indications, is not a U.S. citizen. While in high school, he lived here as a permanent resident. His father, a medical technician during his time here, is also a green card holder. It’s unclear whether his mother, also of Ethiopian descent, is a naturalized citizen.
Gedion’s best bet is the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which clears the way for a foreign-born minor to naturalize as soon as a parent becomes a citizen.
Has the father, Zelalem Woldyes, filed for citizenship? He did not respond to messages seeking comment. Multiple sources, however, said Woldyes did take initial steps for naturalization about 18 months ago.
Gedion moved to London last fall, just ahead of his 16th birthday — the threshold for an EU resident to join a professional club full-time. His family moved overseas as well. The father, however, continues to spend time in the United States. (He was in California this past weekend.) Gedion visited friends and family in the area this summer and attended a soccer anti-racism campaign at Miami Beach.
Even if Gedion were eligible to play for the United States, would he? He has deep roots in Germany, his birthplace. Before moving to America, he belonged to Hertha Berlin’s youth system. He has featured in Germany’s under-15 and under-16 squads. Most recently, he played for the German U-16s against France in April.
Gedion is very much on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s radar, too. He trained with the U.S. under-15s two years ago and was invited — but declined because of other demands — a call-up to the U-17s. Although ineligible to play in official matches without a passport, he was free to train with American squads.
Those who know him said he seemed more comfortable with the U.S. squad than the German teams because he knew many of his teenage contemporaries. With Germany, they said, he was an outsider.
With Gedion’s profile rising and Germany sure to tighten its grip on him, the USSF would appear to be facing an uphill battle to secure his services.
If he does not receive citizenship before turning 18 in January 2015, Gedion would still be eligible for a passport as an adult. Under complicated guidelines, time spent as a permanent resident in the United States would count toward citizenship. The fact that he now lives overseas, however, would not help his case.
Another wrinkle: Applying for U.S. citizenship could impact his German standing, and consequently, his EU passport, which is needed to avoid work-permit issues in England, experts say. Germany allows for dual citizenship but requires a minor legal procedure.
One source familiar with the situation said Juergen Klinsmann, the German-born coach of the U.S. senior national team, has reached out to Gedion. Klinsmann has persuaded several German-Americans to commit to the U.S. program the past two years, but in all of those cases, the players were eligible by virtue of an American-born father. Those who had previously suited up for Germany, such as Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones, had to apply to FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, to change allegiance.
Could Gedion gain dual citizenship, continue playing for Germany and then have a change of heart years from now? Yes, but only if he were a citizen of both countries at the time he played for one or the other. FIFA allows one permanent switch.
Through ancestry, Gedion is also eligible to represent Ethiopia. However, he has never lived there and the Ethiopian program is far behind the German and American systems. The Ethiopian league employs almost all of the national team players. Forward Saladin Said is the most accomplished player abroad, moving from Egypt’s Wadi Degla to Lierse in Belgium this year.
Arsenal, meantime, would prefer to block out the distractions and allow Gedion to develop at the club’s intended pace. Still, Coach Arsene Wenger has not kept him under lock and key. During the Asian tour, Gedion entered at the start of the second half against Indonesian and Vietnamese select teams and Japanese club Nagoya Grampus. He played the last 25 minutes against Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan.
Back in London for the recent Emirates Cup, he was on the active roster against Napoli but did not play. He then received 29 minutes against Turkish side Galatasaray. Over the weekend, he entered in the 73rd minute of a 3-1 victory over Manchester City in Helsinki.
This season, he is likely to spend the bulk of his time with Arsenal’s youth and reserve squads. If the past six months are any measure, though, Zelalem might not remain in the shadows for very much longer.
Here is an interview of him while visiting Miami this summer: