Growing up in Malmö, budding footballer Saman Ghoddos had the flags of both Sweden and Iran on his bedroom wall.
He never anticipated he’d get a chance to play for both.
The forward’s journey from the lower ranks of Swedish football to this year’s World Cup has seen him twice pull on the yellow jersey of his birth country, only to later declare his allegiance to a nation he had never even visited.
It is unusual but not unique.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter once warned of the threat of naturalized Brazilian “invaders” populating the teams of other countries. In recent years strikers Diego Costa and Eduardo have controversially represented Spain and Croatia after earning dual nationalities.
Xherdan Shaqiri, scorer of one of the goals of Euro 2016, has previously stitched the flags of Switzerland, Albania and Kosovo onto his boots. Then there’s Bundesliga star Leon Bailey, the Jamaican who isn’t sure if he wants to play for Jamaica. Several sets of brothers, from the Xhakas to the Boatengs to the Berishas, are divided by duty to different nations.
“The world is changing, immigration is changing,” said FIFA Vice President Victor Montagliani in late 2017.
“There are nationality issues that pop up all over the world … so it’s a good time to have a look at this and see if there are solutions, without hurting the integrity of the game.”
As countries become increasingly cosmopolitan so, in general, do their football teams.
Of the 32 sides at Russia 2018, over 9% of players were born outside of the country they represented in qualifying. When Iran face Morocco in Group B’s opening fixture, the latter’s starting eleven could be made up entirely of European-born players.
Two decades on from the exploits of France’s “Rainbow Team” – when a side comprised of players from all over the francophone world united a divided country – the notion of nationality in modern football is as divisive and complex as ever …
Ghoddos - ‘Representing both Sweden and Iran’
Ghoddos, star of Östersunds FK’s fairy-tale rise from Swedish obscurity to the Europa League knockout stages, was born and raised in the Scandinavian nation. A life beside the Baltic Sea is all he has ever known.
“I had both the Swedish flag and the Iranian flag on my bedroom wall actually when I was a child,” Ghoddos tells CNN Sport. “Of course, I didn’t really think about what country I would play for; it was more a case of finding a club.”
It was naturally a dream come true when Sweden manager Janne Andersson came calling in early 2017, giving Ghoddos his first taste of international football in friendlies against the Ivory Coast and Slovakia.
Technically proficient with an eye for goal, Ghoddos scored with his first shot on target, maintaining that form as he directly contributed to goals against Galatasary, PAOK, Athletic Bilbao, Zorya and even Arsenal during his club’s European adventure.
“The stronger the team we were playing against, the easier it was for me to compete at their level,” says Ghoddos, who hopes to play for “one of the bigger teams in Germany, England, Spain or Italy” a year from now.
Suddenly he was attracting envious glances from elsewhere. Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger called him a “marvelous player both technically and tactically,” with a host of English Premier League sides including West Ham and Leicester reportedly sending scouts.
They weren’t the only ones.
Ghoddos’s parents hail from the Southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz – a fact not lost on Iran boss Carlos Queiroz.
The talented Swede, after all, hadn’t yet played a competitive international. He was still eligible to switch allegiances to Iran, despite having never visited the country.
“Queiroz said he was really interested in me and he really liked my football and how I’m playing,” says Ghoddos, recalling their initial telephone conversation in June 2017. “He said that I would be a good asset for the team.”
Suddenly the player was forced to arrive at a decision he never thought he’d have to make. Did he consider himself Swedish or Iranian?
“It’s a really hard question because it’s deeper than that,” says Ghoddos, who admitted at the time his loyalties were split “50:50.”
“I love both countries, and believe I can represent both,” he adds.
After administrative delays from FIFA – during which Sweden made a late attempt to change his mind – Iran, a nation with a solitary World Cup victory in its history, won the race for his permanent allegiance.
“They gave me the most interest. I don’t know how to explain it, it was only Iran first,” says Ghoddos. “They said: ‘You should come here and play in the playoffs for the World Cup,’ and I didn’t hear anything from Sweden. As soon as I picked Iran, it was then that Sweden came.”
It was a case of only realizing what you have when it’s gone for Andersson, who admitted the Swedish football association had “obviously hoped for a different decision.”
As for Ghoddos, the striker is now set to pull on the white jersey of Iran at the Russia 2018 World Cup after being named in Querioz’s 32-man initial squad – something he says is beyond his “biggest dreams.”
“Of course it’s really big for me, and for my family,” says the 24-year-old. “I can’t imagine how proud they are of me. So I will