More and more African countries are now looking to Europe for ready-made top-class talent with ancestral link to make them more competitive in the international arena.
With the exception of South African and Zambia, all squads at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations included players born or raised in Europe. Sixteen out of 23 Algerian players were born in France while hosts Equatorial Guinea had 14 players who were born in Spain.
Frederic Kanoute played for France’s U21 team but, having never won a full cap, he was allowed to switch to Mali, the country of his parents.
He went on to play for Mali at the 2004, 2008 and 2010 African Cups.
He was named 2007 African Footballer the Year.
The numbers reflect the demand on an up-and-coming new generation of talent born in Europe but of an African descent. But some countries have been handed multiple brush-offs lately.
‘Lost African sons’
Marseille midfielder Mario Lemina rejected his country of birth Gabon’s call after being named in their squad for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. His reason: “My wish is to play for France”.
These minor setbacks, however, have not deterred the quest to convince ‘lost African sons’ to return to their rightful African ‘homes’.
For some, there are no incentives in playing for a country where they have never lived in, visited or rarely know but are only tied to by ancestry. It’s an easy choice to play for the European country in which they are born and raised.
They are also highly motivated to emulate ‘fellow Africans’ and 1998 World Cup winners Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira – all sons of African immigrants.
One of the stars of this year’s tournament, Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie, was torn between two tough choices.
Eligible to represent France (birth), England (upbringing) and DR Congo (parentage), Bolasie rejected the chance to play for the latter at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations because he needed time to consider playing for England or DRC.
Four months later, he eventually chose DRC and won his first international cap against Libya in a World Cup qualifier. Now enjoying a regular international career, the 25-year-old is a favourite with DRC fans.
“I was always in two minds, but at the end of the day I thought I’d go and play for my parents’ country,” Bolasie said. “They were really happy too, watching the game online.”
For every Bolasie who had to make the choice on his own, there are many others who are deprived of a golden chance of playing for the African country of their parents, either by choice or by their European clubs.
With African football chiefs desperate not to allow exciting talent to slip away, European officials have also intensified efforts to guard against the poaching of their prospects. One player confirmed to Al Jazeera that despite a dual citizenship, there was a clause in his contract that prevented him from representing his African country.
I wanted to connect more with my roots and this gives me an opportunity to do just that
And there are several who, in their formative years, chose to play for a European junior side but never progressed beyond the under-21 level.
These days, French-born talent of African descent are increasingly benefiting from a FIFA regulations change and enjoying international careers for a new country, even after they have played for France.
Previously, any player who had played for one country in a competitive international, even if it was U17, would never be allowed to play for another country. That was the case even if he obtained, or already possessed, the nationality of the second country.
But keen to attract a generation of Europe-born talent of African descent, Algeria proposed a change in 2001.
After much thought, FIFA introduced a new rule on January 1, 2004 that allows a previously capped footballer capped at junior level to be able to represent another country later. But only as long as he possessed dual nationality and made the request before turning 21.
French-born defender Antar Yahia became the first footballer to take advantage of the new rule when he made his debut for Algeria in an Olympic Games qualifier.
Yahia, then from the French first division club Bastia, scored the only goal in the win over Ghana for the Algerian U23 side. He was followed by Samir Beloufa and Ouadah Abdelnasser who were also French junior internationals, but opted for international careers with Algeria.
Restrained by the age-restriction dilemma in this rule, African officials approached Fifa to change their statutes to allow all eligible players benefit from this ‘second opportunity’. In June 2009, FIFA’s congress approved a motion from Algeria to abandon that restriction by removing the age limit for players who want to switch allegiance.
Back to the roots
It was evident at AFCON 2015 that this rule has given some African countries the chance to become more competitive while also improving the quality of play.
Born in France to Algerian parents, Yacine Brahimi played for the French youth teams from U16 to the U-21 before switching allegiance to Algeria at senior level in 2013.
“It’s not something you just wake up to do [switch allegiance],” Brahimi, who scored a fantastic goal against South Korea in the group stages of Brazil 2014, said.
“I wanted to connect more with my roots and this gives me an opportunity to do just that.”
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, played for France at under-21 level in a friendly match in February 2009, but six weeks later he scored for Gabon on his debut in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.
It took more than a year of persuasion before he decided his international future was African rather than with the country of his birth.
But one player, France-born Hatem Ben Arfa, did turn his back on his fatherland. In May 2006, Hatem, the son of former Tunisian international Kamel Ben Arfa, rejected a possible place in Tunisia’s World Cup squad.
Having represented France at youth level, the youngster ‘wanted to continue playing for France instead’.