Whisper it softly, but the United States might have just unearthed a future star in New York Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo.
The 17-year-old has outshone many of his more illustrious team-mates in recent weeks, and was rewarded for his form with a call-up to the full national side for last night’s friendly against South Africa.
After replacing Robbie Rogers an hour into the game, Agudelo got his chance with five minutes remaining. He exchanged passes with fellow-debutant Mikkel Diskerud and lifted the ball over Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune and into the net with the outside of his right foot.
Last night’s selection demonstrated how America have stolen a march on certain other nations with their selection of foreign-born players, although this is a rather ugly way of describing the situation some 138 years after the advent of international football.
Of the 17 players who appeared last night, four were born on foreign soil. Colombian-born Agudelo and Togolese refugee Gale Agbossoumonde both moved to the states at the age of eight, Canadian-born Teal Bunbury moved to Kansas with his soccer-playing father Alex at the age of 10, and Stabæk midfielder Diskerud has lived in Norway his entire life.
While the only obstacle faced by any of these four was the backlash from Canadian fans after Bunbury’s international about-turn, it is unlikely that any of them would have had things so easy had they – for example – grown up in Italy.
Last night the Azzurri named Mario Balotelli in their starting line-up against Romania. Though born in Palermo, Balotelli has faced the wrath of fans who refuse to consider him ‘Italian’ on the basis of his race. In Klagenfurt last night he suffered the ignominy of being booed by both sets of supporters, with a banner reading “No to multi-cultural Italy” brandished by Italian fans, while during his time in Milan with Internazionale the streets outside the ground were littered with racist graffiti.
That was not the full extent of it, either, as Italian debutant Cristian Ledesma – who was born in Argentina but has played in Italy for the entirety of his 10-year professional career – was also subjected to boos from a minority of the crowd.
And it is not only in Italy where immigrants or naturalised foreigners have a tough time breaking into the international set-up. England fans have not gone as far as booing their own players, but opposition to the inclusion of players like Manuel Almunia and Mikel Arteta has been vocal.
In this situation it might be viewed more a case of positive discrimination, with journalists such as Henry Winter suggesting the FA should be focused on developing English youth rather than calling upon markedly better players in the prime of their career.
But what’s to say having someone like Arteta within the England set-up would not help future generations develop their game?
Many foreign-born players elsewhere have provided a new outlook for international sides whose home-grown players were failing to produce the right results.
The French World Cup-winning squad of 1998 is the classic example, with African-born Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira still among the country’s most-capped players, but there are other examples.
Surinam native Aron Winter laid the foundations for the likes of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel to succeed as defensive midfielders for the Netherlands, distant from the ‘Total Football’ principles of the 1970s, and himself earned a then-record 84 international caps.
The strike-partnership of Polish-born frontmen Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski helped Germany light up the last two World Cups and engender a free-flowing attacking brand of football in the aftermath of a Euro 2000 campaign which cast doubt on the long-term future of the traditional German way.
And would Spain be where they are now without the contribution of naturalised Brazilian Marcos Senna, who not only played an integral role in the Euro 2008 success but also laid the foundations for Sergio Busquets to find his calling with La Furia Roja?
Bob Bradley has recognised all this, and has brought together a blend of young and old players from different footballing cultures in what he hopes will be a rich and productive future for the United States side.
And what’s more, with the arrival of more and more of the world’s top names in the MLS, youngsters like Agudelo and Red Bulls team-mate Tim Ream (who also made his debut last night) can learn from established internationals like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez and share their new-found expertise with their international colleagues.
There is already clamour for more foreign nationals to receive international recognition with the Stars and Stripes. Philadelphia’s French lynchpin Sebastien Le Toux has recently received his green card and looks set for a call-up sooner rather than later, while fans across the country are hopeful that DC United’s Rookie of the Year Andy Najar opts for the US over his native Honduras.
Life in America has for centuries been characterised by cultural and social influences from across the globe coming together to create a unique society and raison d’être. It seems only fitting for something similar to play out on the soccer field.