Zelalem is a German-born midfielder of Ethiopian descent who lived in the D.C. suburbs for six years and honed his craft with Olney Rangers before joining Arsenal last year [His Gunners profile]. He trained with the U.S. under-15 team twice, but without citizenship, did not meet eligibility requirements for official matches.
Zelalem is in the German national team system, but in March, abruptly withdrew from the under-17 squad ahead of European Championship qualifiers. Had he played in any of those matches, he would have relinquished any hope of representing the United States. FIFA does allow players to switch affiliations once, provided they are citizens of both countries at the time they make their international debut.
At the time, Arsenal said Zelalem withdrew in order to concentrate on his work with the club’s under-21s. That may well have been true, but international eligibility also seemed to have played into the decision.
Zelalem is eligible for a U.S. passport through the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which “serves to facilitate the acquisition of U.S. citizenship of the foreign-born children of U.S. citizens – both biological and adopted – who did not acquire citizenship at birth.”
In other words, because he is under age 18, he would automatically become a citizen when his father becomes a citizen. His father, Zelalem Wolydes, was a medical technician in the Washington area, and despite joining his son in London, maintained U.S. permanent residency. At some point, he began pursuing citizenship. His application has apparently been approved, and both arrived in Washington in recent days to finalize the process.
Would Zelalem claim a U.S. passport without plans to play for the United States? It would be naive to think so. (Hey, maybe he just wants easier access in and out of Miami!) He would, however, remain eligible for Germany and Ethiopia.
Germans must relinquish citizenship when they are naturalized elsewhere, but because he is a minor, Zelalem would keep his German passport — thus, maintaining European Union credentials and avoiding England’s strict work permit guidelines.
Zelalem made his first-team debut for Arsenal in January in an FA Cup match against Coventry City. He was also an unused substitute in three Premier League games. He signed a first-team contract in March.
His vision, touch and distribution have drawn comparisons to Cesc Fabregas, the Barcelona and Spanish World Cup midfielder who, almost 11 years ago, launched his career at Arsenal at age 16.
“You need to be quite brave to put a boy of that age into the team, but you can only be brave if you are convinced that he has something special,” Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger said of Arsenal’s teenage prospects last month. “Of course, when you think about 16- or 17-year-olds, usually it’s not a physical advantage they have – most of the time it’s an exceptional talent or technical ability.”
Should Zelalem commit to the U.S. program, he would become the second high-profile prospect from a major club to spurn Germany. In March, Bayern Munich’s Julian Green, an 18-year-old attacker with dual citizenship, chose to play for the Americans. Unlike Zelalem, Green was U.S. eligible all along; he was born in Florida. Like Zelalem, Green has played primarily on a lower level for his club (Bayern Munich II in the German fourth division).
U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann is expected to name Green to the 30-man World Cup provisional roster in the next 10 days. The final 23-man list is due June 2 — 10 days before the World Cup begins in Brazil. Green might end up claiming one of the last slots.
Unlike Green, who was capped against Mexico last month, Zelalem has never trained with the senior national team and presumably would fall into Klinsmann’s long-term plans, such as the 2016 Olympics and next World Cup.