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African countries need to work out how to attract their foreign-born soccer talent

Quartz | A number of African countries must be wondering “what could have been” if they were able to field several of the players who starred for champions France and third placed Belgium at the 2018 World Cup tournament. The top talents for Belgium include Romelu Lukaku (parents from Democratic Republic of Congo), Mousa Dembélé (father from Mali) and Marouane Fellaini (parents from Morocco). The French squad featured stars like Paul Pogba (parents from Guinea), N’Golo Kanté (parents from Mali), Kylian Mbappé (Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father), Blaise Matuidi (parents from Angola) and Samuel Umtiti (born in Cameroon).

All were eligible to play for the country of their parentage. It never happened. They opted to play for France and Belgium instead.

France had as many as 15 players with African roots in its squad of 23. Belgium had nine out of 23. Even England, also in the top four of the 2018 competition, had players with African parentage including Dele Alli (Nigeria) and Danny Welbeck (Ghana).

Last year six players who were eligible to play for Nigeria were among 21 English players who won the FIFA Under-20s World Cup.

The story of Africa missing out on players goes back more than half a century. Eighty years ago, Raoul Diagne, a Senegalese, played as defender for France in the 1938 World Cup. He won 18 caps for France and after Senegal’s independence became its first coach. In 1963 he led the West African team to its first victory against France and became a national hero.

Over the decades other players with African connections have made their mark at the World Cup. These included super stars like Just Fontaine (Morocco) who represented France in 1958, Mozambican Eusébio da Silva Ferreira who represented Portugal at the 1966 World Cup, and Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent, who was prominent in the French team when they won the tournament in 1998. There were others too.

Can African countries break the cycle and improve their chances of accomplishing much more at a World Cup? Change is already underway. But a lot more needs to be done. The biggest challenge is that administrators and managers aren’t trying to find out why African players chose other countries above their homelands. Until this knowledge gap is filled, it will be impossible to reverse the trend.

Ignored emigrant players

Until a few decades ago—before emigration of African players to professional careers outside the continent became a deluge—African countries ignored first and second-generation emigrant players. Instead, they only selected players for their national teams who didn’t have multiple eligibility.

But things have changed and countries have begun to actively look for first (African emigrants) and second (children of African emigrants) generation players. The recruitment is yet to focus on third generation players, who are also eligible, including the likes of England’s Ross Barkley who has a Nigerian grandfather. That could happen years down the line.

Recruiting players eligible to play for multiple countries has begun in earnest. Morocco, for instance, had 17 players in its recent World Cup who were born outside the country. Nigeria had six that could have played for several European countries, while 25 players born in France were at the World Cup in the uniforms of Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia.

The race to woo and land these players to represent a European country or an African one is fierce.

Coaches in charge of African national teams—especially European ones—prefer recruiting second generation talent from overseas.

It’s difficult to say what impact these players have had given that they haven’t moved the needle in terms of World Cup performance. One reason for this may be that African countries haven’t been able to recruit the top line of second generation emigrant players. Instead, they’ve been left with players who weren’t being strongly courted by European countries.

In several cases, players ignored by European countries took years before deciding to grab the alternative of representing an African country. Take Steven Nzonzi who played for France in Moscow. He was eligible to play for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) because his father is Congolese. But he repeatedly turned down call-ups to play for the country. Instead he held out until he finally got his first France cap last year at the age of 28. The decision made him very unpopular in the DRC.

There has to be a reason why top line players are not yet choosing to represent African countries. It’s time Africa’s top administrators tried to find out so that they can work to rectify the situation. Success in recruiting such talent will be a much faster route to winning the World Cup.

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10 comments

  1. If only Africa would give them the same treatment the European Nations are giving them. Note that these players with African roots are playing with white team mates. Their presence alone can’t win the world cup for their respective African countries. So wonna lif da tok.

  2. Stupid talk.How would u expect a first division player in cameroon being paid 50,000frs to come back to play for a banana republic when they have found greener pastures abroad?And when they retire,nobody cares.Mfede died unable to pay his hospital bills but this can happen in europe.An 88 yrs old still trying to be president in a country full of energetic youths.Badluck

  3. If this Players were Born,raised and live in Africa.all will not be alive today.Lukaku might have died from Hardship digging mines,cobalt in Katanga in Zaire,Mbappe and Umtiti might be Okada men In LRC or killed by Cholera,Malaria or road accidents do to bad roads in LRC,bad water,no electricity etc

  4. If you can not feed your Children or fowls well,don,t beat or blame them when they and eat at your neighbors house.even your wife

  5. For ever young

    Bad luck people in charge of the continent Africa, rubbish African sports federation cannot even managed their respective sports federation to promote local telant at their disposal with the means to be successful in their skills, zero sporting infrastructure , corrupt morons running the show which only interested in stealing money and promote themselves instead to develop the next superstar in their GoD giving telant, compared with players in European nations are treated , blessed continent Africa tarnish by bad useless men

  6. Cameroon has talents. What it lacks is the social and economic climate to let this bloom. France is investing in and providing for this type of conducive climate and thus luring talents away from Africa.

  7. reading the comments above,one quickly realize that the french and british system of indoctrination called education that we naively maintained,creats frustrated mentally dependent,complaining humans beings.but the main function of education is training people to take life from where it is,work and improve it before passing on to the next generation.
    people in such a degrading mental condition can not give birth to intelligent children capable of understanding that it is their responsibility to do whatever it takes to build africa the only place they can call home.

  8. saying that one is not successful because mvondo biya is 85 years,and still want to be president for the next seven years is not a responsible rational argument because it is proven that there is no connection between biya being president,and the act of planting corn in njah etu,watering and weeding,taking care of it for good harvest.to grow crops year round one needs to dig a well from where water is drawn,connected and used to irrigate the farm year round.where is mvondo biya in all this?those who say they can do better than mvondi biya,where are they going to take resources to implement their ideas?is this not enough prove they are going to be vassals?what is the need to replace one vassal with another?those who dictate the fate of a country are wealth creators.

  9. concerning the children africans give birth to in europe,america,canada and the UK,i say planting plantains in BAMBUI is a far better uption.from birth this children are already dehumanised by their ignorant unpatriotic parents who give them aryan or labou names.completely cutting them from their roots.this combined with television and news papers bombarding their minds with negative images of africa.it is difficult to see how this children can be of any good for the continent.the only way they should have escaped lynching is through patriotic parents.unfortunately once some africans ignorantly accept to change their african passports for french,british,or american ones.they become africa bashers ontill they are reminded they are africans then they cry racism kikikiki

  10. The answer is in structure, and organization. It is hard for anyone raised out of Cameroon, let alone born out of Cameroon, or any other African country for that matter to feel comfortable in the midst of chaos. Management is corrupt, and professionalism is absent. Results therefore cannot be achieved at the highest level.
    Mbappe and Umtiti surely do not regret their decisions…Mbappe is not being leveled with Pele for good reason. Good for him.
    This should be a lesson to Africa. Clean up your mess and even without foreign born or raised talent and you will do well.