It was a complete 180. Two weeks ago, as so many hearts devoted to U.S. soccer broke at the thought of Gedion Zelalem slipping away, the reality of the Arsenal prospect seemed clear. Though the 17-year-old had spent much of his pre-Gunners days in the United States, his U-level international history told a story different story. Zelalem had never appeared for the U.S., wasn’t eligible to appear for the U.S., and, called up for Germany’s upcoming qualifying for the European U-17 championship, was about to slip away. Appear for Germany in that tournament, and Zelalem was cap-tied.
It’s part of the reason the big guns came out. Understandably, national team supporters have been excited about the possibility of Zelalem joining up, even if he still needs to get U.S. citizenship to do so. But there was no public indication he actually wanted to play for the U.S. Even putting aside the potential work permit issues of forgoing German citizenship, there was a brief but clear record of Zelalem having accepted Germany’s U-level call ups. If Zelalem wanted to play for the United States, why was he accepting Germany’s invitations?
Then, the twist. Oh (for U.S. fans), that glorious twist that an ESPNFC reporter put out on his Twitter feed, one that have fans reason to hope:
No, it wasn’t a commitment to the United States. In fact, nothing Arsenal said hinted that a potential future with the U.S. was even a factor in his decision. But in a world where similar excuses are often smoke screens for real motivations, there remains an obvious possibility: The young midfielder is not ready to make any huge decisions about his future.
At least, that’s what appears to be going on. Zelalem gets almost no benefit from narrowing his options. Even if he commits to Germany, he’s not going to Brazil. He’s probably not going to Russia, and where he to limit his options to the Nationalmannschaft, he may not go to Qatar, either. One 17-year-old’s career is impossible to project, but the potential talent output of the Germany federation? That’s a safer bet. Zelalem will be one of a slew of blue chip prospects coming out of the system. There’s no point to making a commitment that may not pay off until far into the future.
The big cost of Zelalem’s reluctance is missing out on tournaments like the European U-17 Championships, but consider where those priorities fall in the life of a 17-year-old at Arsenal. In addition to the normal distractions of a teen age existence, Zelalem has the responsibilities that come with being linked to one of the world’s biggest clubs – the training evaluations, games, study, and expectations.
Where most 17-year-olds are overwhelmed by more mundane pursuits, Zelalem’s life must be incredibly full. The occasional competition with U-level national teams pales in comparison to establishing a career at your club. Right now, Arsenal should be soccer priority number one.
In that light, pulling out of Germany’s U-17 squad may not be so much a nod to the U.S. as it is a nod to his reality. Major international soccer is in Zelalem’s future, but it doesn’t need to be a part of his present, especially if he wants to keep his options open. Tying his international future to one of his options? That’s best left for another game, once the shape of his professional career’s revealed.
And perhaps three, maybe five years from now, those options will include the United States. Who knows if he’ll choose it? The big news this week as that those big guns we pulled out two weeks ago misfired. It appears Gedion Zelalem is not going to be a German international any time soon.