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‘Fast-track’ citizenship for French waterpolo star is causing ripples

Aurelien Cousin

Aurelien Cousin

The award of Maltese citizenship to a former French national waterpolo player has sparked complaints that his application was fast tracked to give his team an edge.

Aurelien Cousin, who has lived in Malta for the past seven years, the past three as a coach with Exiles, was last month naturalised and became eligible to compete as a Maltese player both with his new club – San Ġiljan – and with the national team.

According to waterpolo rules, clubs are only able to field two foreign players at a time, which means that giving a French player Maltese citizenship makes a crucial difference to the club.

The citizenship certificate was issued by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela at the end of March; just a few days after the French player married a Maltese citizen.

Apart from this, the 35-year-old French player, who had retired from playing three years ago, took up training again in February. This added fuel to suspicions among rival clubs that he was about to resume his playing career.

News that Mr Cousin had effectively become a Maltese player spread like wildfire in waterpolo circles last week and Neptunes president Matthew Bonello immediately cried foul. “We had been hearing San Ġiljan’s officials openly saying they were putting pressure on the authorities to give Maltese citizenship to the French national,” he told The Sunday Times of Malta.

“This has now turned out to be true and we’re not convinced everything was done above board,” Mr Bonello, whose side dominated the local waterpolo scene in the last five years, said.

“We cannot understand how the minister used his discretion and how everything was concluded so quickly.”

According to the Maltese citizenship act, the Home Affairs Minister can decide to grant citizenship to a foreigner or a stateless person if he has lived in Malta in the 12 months immediately preceding the date of application, and for periods amounting in aggregate to a minimum of four years, during the six years preceding the application.

During the past 12 months two other foreign sportsmen, both footballers, were granted Maltese citizenship.

However, citizenship was only granted to Nigerian Alfred Effiong after he had been living in Malta for a decade and married to a Maltese for more than five years; while 17-year-old Nigerian Joseph Mbong had been living on the island since he was two.

When contacted, a ministry spokesman confirmed that Mr Cousin was granted citizenship through the law governing naturalisation. Pressed to say when Mr Cousin had applied for citizenship and whether the minster had used any specific discretion, the ministry said “this information cannot be disclosed”.

Both the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) and the San Ġiljan’s waterpolo club denied they had applied pressure on the authorities to grant Mr Cousin citizenship.

“We are using the services of Mr Cousin as a Maltese player as he managed to obtain citizenship. However, we had absolutely nothing to do with it as this was his personal issue,” San Ġiljan’s president Daniel Aquilina said.

Association president Joe Caruana Curran also distanced himself from the issue and said it was up to the Home Affairs Minister to decide on citizenship.

Mr Caruana Curran, however, said the Sports Parliamentary Secretariat had asked for the association’s opinion on whether Mr Cousin would be considered to play with the national team as a Maltese citizen.

When contacted, Mr Cousin said that after resigning as coach of Exiles in March 2014 a friend told him that he was eligible for Maltese citizenship. However, he did not give a date of when he actually filed his application.

He said that he had stopped playing water polo because local rules discriminate against other EU nationals.

“Once I was informed that I was eligible for Maltese citizenship I decided to apply because that meant I could once again play the sport I love,” he said.

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