Months after Mexico got punished for fielding an ineligible player in Alejandro Zendejas, a possible case of an ineligible player in CONCACAF could have presented itself and even have a bigger impact because of participation in official matches. Nicaragua, who are currently qualified to the Gold Cup after winning their League B group in the Nations League, have been playing with naturalized Uruguayan Richard Rodriguez, even when he hasn’t met the requirements to play with Nicaragua. While the recent news says that Rodriguez has decided to stop playing with Nicaragua and concentrate on his current club, Municipal Libera, in Costa Rica, he already had activity in the Nations League campaign where Nicaragua winning the title forced Trinidad and Tobago to play in the Gold Cup preliminaries. The activity was also in a lot less time than the activity Zendejas had with Mexico and in which FIFA decided to fine the Mexican federation and change the results of the matches where Zendejas played.
Born in Toledo, Uruguay, Richard Rodriguez started his career in Rentistas, a second division club of that nation. After a short spell in another Uruguayan club, Canadian, he would go to his first foreign club in Honduras, where he played in Platense. After a short return to Uruguay to play in Cerrito, he returned to Honduras in 2016 to play at Vida. In 2018 he then made the biggest move of his career when he went to Nicaragua to play for Real Esteli. After a short spell in Paraguay, where he played at Deportivo Santani, he then returned to Real Esteli, before finally making his last move so far to Liberia in Costa Rica.
After his successful spell in Nicaragua, he decided to naturalize in Nicaragua to play for the National Football Team. After arriving in 2018, Rodriguez would acquire his Nicaraguan citizenship in 2019 and start playing almost immediately with the National team. He was part of Nicaragua’s campaign for the 2022 World Cup and played in four matches of the last Nations League. In 2021, he would even score the opening goal of Nicaragua’s World Cup qualifier win against Belize.
The problem for Nicaragua and Rodriguez is that as he arrived in Nicaragua in 2018, he doesn’t meet the requirements to play for Nicaragua if he is a naturalized citizen. The FIFA rules are clear; according to Article 7, a naturalized player needs to have lived for five years in the country they are taking the citizenship of to be able to play for that National team. Not only does this mean that had he done so, he would only now (in 2023) be able to play for Nicaragua, but his spells in Paraguay and Costa Rica make it that he doesn’t even meet those requirements. But what is very clear is he didn’t have the time in 2019 or 2021 when he played the qualifiers. More importantly, he was an ineligible player when he played four matchs in the current CONCACAF Nations League.
According to CONCACAF reports, Rodriguez came in as a substitute in Nicaragua’s win against Trinidad and Tobago (2-1) and Bahamas (4-0). He was also on the bench for the away matches against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (2-2) and Bahamas (0-2). Nicaragua won three of the four matches and gained 10 points. Taking into account only the matches he played, it would still be 6 points that should change hands to 3-0 losses, the punishment for fielding ineligible players. Should only the matches played results change, it would lower Nicaragua’s points from 14 to 8 and Trinidad and Tobago from 13 to 16, which would give them the group and the qualification to the Gold Cup. Should Nicaragua get punished for all the matches where Rodriguez was on the roster, Nicaragua would end up with just four points and in third place of the group, with Bahamas qualifying to the Gold Cup preliminaries. Both Trinidad and Tobago and Bahamas’ federations should take notice, because although it might be too late to ask for the results, FIFA’s actions against Mexico with Zendejas show that there should still be enough time for the results as some of the Zendejas matches where the result changed were more than a year after the investigation on his ineligibility started.
Unless Rodriguez had Nicaraguan nationality from the start (which would mean that he wouldn’t be a naturalized player, in opposition to all of the press reports from Nicaragua, who call him a naturalized player), Nicaragua played an ineligible player in official matches. Unlike Mexico with Zendejas, who only played in friendlies, Nicaragua violated FIFA’s rules in action that have gotten many countries sanctioned. The most famous case is probably Bolivia fielding Nelson Cabrera in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers when he also didn’t comply with the five years rule after arriving to Bolivia from Paraguay. The results ended up costing Bolivia four points, but while Chile were the country that protested, it was Peru who benefitted the most and ended up qualifying to the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1982. The fact no country figured this out since 2019 leaves a lot to be desired about the officials from their respective FAs and CONCACAF. It also leaves an air of suspicion of the recent announcement that Rodriguez would stop playing for Nicaragua, something that might be influenced by the recent sanctions to Mexico for Zendejas. Still, the fact of the matter is if Mexico were sanctioned for Zendejas, Nicaragua must be as well for playing four years with a player that had only spent a single year in Nicaragua before being naturalized and playing immediately in a clear violation of FIFA’s rules.