123014_isi_zelalemgedion_bpi_arsenal_monaco1bq_4755.2851975 Ben Queenborough/isiphotos.com

Advice for Gedion Zelalem: Go Play Soccer for Germany

The 18-year-old acquired his U.S. citizenship in December and says he wants to play for the Yanks. But the German federation isn't ready to give up on the Arsenal playmaker. What to do, what to do....
BY Leander Schaerlaeckens Posted
March 18, 2015
12:20 PM
IF I WERE GEDION ZELALEM—and to be quite clear, I am not, as demonstrated by the byline at left—I would choose to play for Germany over the United States.

(Before you call me some type of traitor or moral defector, know that I’m not American. I have no dog in this fight. Well, maybe I do—as a Dutchman, I’d rather not see Germany get any stronger than it already is. But still.)

Zelalem, in case you need informing on this subject, is the latest European-born Boy Wonder who happens to possess an American passport by some fluke of paternity or immigration. He only just turned 18 and is a playmaking midfielder in the Arsenal academy, where he has been since 2013. Before that, he lived in Maryland for seven years, although he was born in Berlin, Germany, to Ethiopian parents.

After his father acquired American citizenship, Gideon did as well, back in late December. He has announced that he’d like to play for the Yanks; even though he has represented Germany at the under-15, under-16, and under-17 levels, he only played for them in friendlies and is not cap-tied, even provisionally.

On Tuesday, Germany called Zelalem into its under-18 team regardless, seen as something of a Hail Mary on the umpteenth prodigy in its talent pool, since Zelalem recently declined a U-17 call-up from Germany.

The American federation hopes his clearance—which requires an exemption because FIFA requires naturalized citizens to have lived in their new country for five years after their 18th birthday—comes through soon and expects it to this month or the next.

While Zelalem has drawn comparisons to Spain and Chelsea hero-playmaker Cesc Fabregas, he has played in Arsenal’s first team just twice. As a sub in the FA Cup in Jan. 2014, and as a sub in the UEFA Champions League in Dec. 2014. Nonetheless, he has gotten U.S. Soccer’s technical director, head coach and recruiter-in-chief Jurgen Klinsmann giddy with excitement.

“He’s a special case,” Klinsmann recently told reporters. “I think he’s already at a level where he can definitely play on the senior team.”

Arsenal, however, which has plenty of experience with bringing promising young players along slowly, is trying to curb the hype.

“You have to temper this a little bit because in the U.S. people are always looking for the next big star,” Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis told SI Now. “Gideon is an exciting young talent, but right at this moment he’s not the finished product. He’s very much still got a lot of developing to do. There’s something exciting there but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

"There’s a long way to go.”

Very true. Very wise. And all that being the case, Zelalem would be better off reneging on his commitment to the United States and going back to the German program.

Maybe he can’t, and in that case he might have made a mistake.

If you look at it from a remove, there's considerable irony here. Klinsmann is forever telling his players that they should seek out the highest possible level of competition. Yet at the same time, he is trying to convince prospects like Zelalem to abandon the world champions for his own program, presently ranked 32nd in the world.

He is mostly siphoning off that talent from his own country of birth, no less.

You have to wonder if Klinsmann would be encouraging them to do the same thing if he were employed by anybody other than U.S. Soccer. Probably not. Wait—almost certainly not.

Dropping the pretense of patriotism and accepting the mercenary nature of soccer, there are many reasons Zelalem would be better off back with his birth country. And if this is merely a move he decided to make to better position himself for an international career with a country where there isn’t nearly as much competition for spots, he could always switch allegiances a few years down the line, if he hasn’t gotten any traction—or competitive caps—with Germany.

Aside from the fact that Germany is plainly better at developing players than the United States is—and that is a fact—there’s simply no need for him to draw so much attention and scrutiny at this stage. Under Klinsmann, he will almost certainly be rushed into the senior team, whereas it would take years to break through the logjam of talent the German senior side has in almost every position.

When you make your senior national team debut, buzzers go off in all kinds of places. Your name begins popping up in various directories—with agents, scouts, clubs—and an awful lot more people begin paying attention. Play a little more, and you’re quickly pegged as a player whose stock is sharply on the rise. And that’s to say nothing of the often unreasonable expectations that build among fans.

That kind of artificially inflated expectation for a player introduced well before his time has led to exceedingly poor results for America over the years. Freddy Adu has yet to demonstrate that he’s a viable professional. Jozy Altidore’s career has meandered widely. Juan Agudelo is having to start over in Major League Soccer, after a failed stint with Stoke City. Ditto for Brek Shea. Julian Green—taken to the World Cup in spite of his desperate lack of experience and an injury—has still only played a handful of minutes for Bayern, was loaned to Hamburg this year, and was demoted to its second team.

It’s hard to establish a direct causality between those players’ meteoric national team ascents and subsequently flagging club careers, but it’s harder still to argue that rushing their development worked out well for them.

What’s more, talent already in the employ of properly big clubs like Arsenal—or Bayern, in Green’s case—doesn’t need the exposure. Their resumes don’t need boosting, since they don’t have to be noticed to get ahead. They might not ever need to move to bigger clubs because there are few ambitions they won’t be able to realize right where they are now.

What they need is time.

What they don’t need is hysteria—or the endless travel to meet up with a team across an ocean.

The upside, then, of choosing the United States over Germany is limited. If Zelalem really is what he’s projected to be, there are few opportunities for growth that the Yanks can offer that Die Mannschaft cannot—other than perhaps an earlier crack at playing in a World Cup. So why not let his development occur organically? It’s surely a hard temptation to resist when you’re a teenager. But the risk—or at least the cautionary tales of predecessors—is too ominous to be ignored.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a freelance soccer writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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