The very first qualification match for next year’s World Cup in Russia took place way back in March 2015, in a clash between Timor-Leste and Mongolia. Outside of Asia, the match failed to garner much attention, but for former Portuguese colony Timor-Leste, it was one of the biggest games of their footballing history.
In front of a 10,000 strong crowd, Timor-Leste won the match 4-1, thanks to goals from Quito, Rodrigo Silva, and Jairo Neto. Considering the relative size of the two countries, the victory was something of an upset; however, Timor-Leste had their eyes set on a much bigger prize, with their Football Federation formulating a plan that could eventually see them becoming one of the smallest nations to ever qualify for the World Cup finals.
Two months after the famous win, articles began to appear online centring around Timor-Leste’s rapid naturalisation of Brazilian players. In fact, the Asian nation had naturalised more than a dozen Brazilians in the years leading up to their qualification campaign, with many of them featuring in the starting XI of the national football team.
The naturalisation of football players from foreign countries has steadily increased over the last decade, forcing FIFA to re-evaluate their stance on the subject. Take a look at the current Russian nation team, and you’ll notice that defender Mario Fernandes, and goalkeeper Guiherme have been given recent call-ups. Both of these players were born in Brazil, but through naturalisation, are now considered Russian citizens.
It’s one thing sneaking a couple of South American tricksters into the side, but Timor-Leste had effectively fielded an entire team of mini Peles, and it would only be a matter of time before they were caught out.
FIFA regulations state that a player born in one country can feature for another country’s national team, if they have lived their for five years and have received citizenship.
By June 2015, Asian and Oceanic football associations were beginning to ask some serious questions about the number of naturalised Brazilians in Timor-Leste. Despite their Portuguese roots, the island’s Brazilian community was relatively tiny, and the fact that a large portion of that tiny community happened to be professional footballers, was suspect to say the least. Locals even jokingly referred to the national team as ‘The Little Samba’.
Four years before the match with Mongolia, Timor-Leste had lost 7-1 on aggregate to Nepal. But with a brand new squad enriched with Brazilian talent, they managed to progress to the second stage of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) qualifying rounds – holding Malaysia to a draw, and narrowly losing to Asian super-power UAE.
FIFA eventually launched a full-scale investigation and found that the Football Federation of Timor-Leste had falsified passports, birth certificates, and baptism certificates, in an attempt to naturalise dozens of Brazilian players. In fact, nine ineligible players had been fielded in at least 29 of Timor-Leste’s matches, including AFC events and World Cup qualifiers.
The small island nation have since been banned from participating in the 2023 Asian Cup, fined $56,000, and perhaps worst of all – forced to forfeit all of their 29 matches, including games they had already won. Timor-Leste’s brief golden period may have given fans something to cheer about, yet not one of their victories will be recorded in the history books.
The rise and fall of Timor-Leste’s Brazilian squad is a remarkable story with an important lesson to be learned. As for the future, who knows how naturalisation will affect the international football landscape in years to come.