Ademola Lookman has scored all of Nigeria’s goals in the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations. He is one of the standout performers at this year’s competition, but he was not born in Lagos or Abuja. Lookman grew up in England and went to school in the south London borough of Peckham.
There are lots of others at AFCON with a similar story. Kalidou Koulibaly is Senegal’s captain while Sebastien Haller is Ivory Coast’s talisman. Both players were born in France and represented them at youth-team level.
Around a third of the 629 players at the tournament were born outside Africa.
Cape Verde’s squad contains 25 players who were born in six different countries, including Portugal, Ireland and Switzerland. There were 14 members of Algeria’s squad raised in France, and 12 for Cameroon. At the other end of the scale, Egypt, South Africa and Namibia only called up players who were born in their homeland.
Should we celebrate players embracing their ancestry or be wary of ulterior motives? Are local players being unfairly overlooked and is there a risk of friction with foreign-born talent? The Athletic sought to find out.
Dr Gerard Akindes is the former captain of Benin’s basketball team and is now a professor at Northwestern University in Qatar and New York University, covering topics that impact African sport. Akindes explains there is a “colonial context” to the huge numbers of players at this tournament born outside Africa.
“These players are second-generation migrants,” he tells The Athletic. “Not many people migrated after independence but they did in the 1970s and when African economies deteriorated in the 1980s.
“The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank told African countries to nationalise everything and spend less money. Education and sport were affected. Migrating became a way to survive.
“In the past, they would move back home but this time they didn’t. France was a popular destination because of the language, education opportunities and the system was welcoming.”
The Royal Moroccan Football Federation (RMFF) has scouts in different European countries to take advantage of their diaspora. Morocco’s head coach Walid Regragui named 17 players born in a different country in his AFCON squad.
Manchester United’s on-loan midfielder Sofyan Amrabat and Galatasaray winger Hakim Ziyech spent time in the Netherlands youth setup. Full-back Achraf Hakimi grew up in Madrid and then scored the winning penalty when Morocco eliminated Spain in the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems about the guys born in Europe and guys not born in Morocco and a lot of journalists said, ‘Why don’t we play with guys born in Morocco?’,” Regragui said after the match.
“Today we have shown that every Moroccan is Moroccan. When he comes to the national team he wants to die, he wants to fight. As the coach, I was born in France, and nobody can have my heart for my country.
“What is good is that players are born in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium — every country has a football culture and we have created a mixture and I’m very happy with that. I don’t care because I fight to make it not about nationality, to make it not about passports.”
Nigeria’s progress to the semi-finals has been powered by a strong British core. Calvin Bassey was born in Italy before moving to London where Semi Ajayi, Ola Aina and Lookman lived. In an interview with The Athletic in December, Bassey touched upon the relationship between the players raised in England and the rest of the team.
“We spend a lot of time together, so the others in the squad call us the ‘Innit Boys’ (because they use the word so much in conversation),” the Fulham centre-back said. “Even though most of us didn’t live there or grow up there, a lot of our parents are first-generation immigrants so most of us have grown up in African households eating traditional food.”
Bassey expanded on this following Nigeria’s 1-0 victory over Angola in the quarter-finals. “Regardless if it is the Innit Boys or we are with the players from home, we are all together,” he said. “There is not one person you cannot have a conversation with. That’s key, we are all our brother’s keepers. That’s helped us get through.”
Six members of their squad were born in Europe.
“You can be born elsewhere and still feel the obligation to want to play for your country,” Ayo Adams, a Nigerian journalist from SWA Sports covering AFCON in Ivory Coast, tells The Athletic. “But there are some people who have reservations that if you were not born and raised here you won’t have the same level of passion, commitment and hunger or feel the same amount of pain if the team loses.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. Lookman scored two goals for Nigeria against Cameroon and he wasn’t brought up here, as well as Bassey and Aina. The way they have played, I don’t think anybody can dispute they really love the badge.”
Radhi Jaidi is the most capped player in Tunisia’s history and he led them to glory at AFCON in 2004. Four players in that team were born in France, while two Brazilians became naturalised citizens. According to Jaidi, foreign-born players can make a “positive and negative difference”.
“It is a quick way to improve the squad but they are missing a bit of understanding about the culture,” says Jaidi, a former Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City and Southampton defender. “The Tunisian Football Federation would have a formal education session to help these boys. It’s also our responsibility as their team-mates to integrate them. They need time to adapt to the different conditions, including the weather, too.
“It is beneficial. They still belong to Tunisia even though they were born in Europe. Guinea, DR Congo and Cape Verde have players in their squad who play at the highest level in Europe. They are superstars who add value to their respective countries when they choose to play for them but this strategy hides a weakness on the African continent.”
Jaidi is referring to the condition of Africa’s domestic leagues. According to TeamForm, which uses a sophisticated data model to come up with a ratings system, Morocco has the strongest division. It is ranked 84th in the world, below the third tiers of France and England.
“They are not in good shape due to lack of resources and poor management,” Akindes says. “The academies are private entities and the economic model forces them to export players. Then what happens with that exodus of young talent?
“Even countries that used to have decent leagues and develop players locally, like Cameroon, their system is not functioning properly anymore. There are a few countries that don’t have good leagues but have decent squads because they look for players with dual nationality. Most of Comoros’ team at the last AFCON were born in France. Everyone is doing it because it is the easy way.
“What is the message behind that? Foreign-born players are not the problem, it is symptomatic of the failure of African football to develop its own talent. We have to rely on players born abroad because they have better training and coaching.”
There have been seven editions of the African Nations Championship (ANC) since it was launched in 2009, the last of which was held in Algeria 12 months ago. The tournament involves 16 countries competing against each other with only players from their local domestic leagues allowed.
When it was initially announced, the Confederation of African Football president at the time, Issa Hayatou, said, “We strive to give to the local African players the possibility to showcase their talents and abilities, but also to bring to a higher level the national championships in Africa, and to boost their importance.”
Senegal won last year’s AFCON and Lamine Camara was a part of the squad. The midfielder, who now plays for French top-flight side Metz, was called up by Aliou Cisse for AFCON and scored twice in their opening group game against Gambia. Camara was the only member of the ANC side to get called up while the same applied to Zineddine Belaid from runners-up Algeria, further proof the local leagues do not provide a consistent pathway.
Kevin-Prince Boateng reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup with Ghana and played against his half-brother Jerome — a centre-back for Germany — in the group stages.
Boateng admitted in an interview with former England defender Rio Ferdinand last year that he was “destined” to represent Germany, after progressing through their youth ranks, but “I didn’t see myself playing there because I’m a guy who says what he thinks and won’t always do what the coaches tell me to do”.
“Character-wise, I wasn’t good for Germany,” Boateng added. “I didn’t want to go and maybe get the chance to play for the German national team and things go wrong again and the whole country would hate me, so I said I would play for Ghana and make them proud.”
This is the big issue when foreign-born players represent the country from which their family originates. Are they just a backup option? This problem is not unique to Africa, or football. Michail Antonio, Bobby De Cordova-Reid, Ethan Pinnock and Demarai Gray pledged allegiance to Jamaica later on in their careers.
Lookman, Aina and Iwobi all played for England at youth-team level. In an interview with the Guardian in October 2021, Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams distanced himself from representing Ghana.
“I admire and love Ghana, the culture, food, tradition,” Williams said. “My parents are from Accra and I really enjoy going. But I wasn’t born or raised there, my culture’s here, and there are players for whom it would mean more. I don’t think it would be right to take the place of someone who really deserves to go and who feels Ghana 100 per cent.”
A year later, he played for them in all three group games at the World Cup.
— IÑAKI WILLIAMS (@Williaaams45) July 5, 2022
Williams made one appearance for Spain as a substitute in a friendly against Bosnia in May 2016 but FIFA updated its eligibility rules in September 2020 to allow players to switch nationalities in special circumstances.
“Fans embrace them,” Akindes says. “There is a feeling of they belong to us and they give us the opportunity to have better teams, which is something to brag about.”
If Nigeria beat South Africa in Wednesday’s semi-final and go on to win the competition for the first time since 2013, William Troost-Ekong will lift the trophy with Ahmed Musa. Troost-Ekong went to school in England but was born in the Netherlands and played for their under-19 and under-20 sides.
“Nobody likes to be a backup option,” Adams says. “The first natural thought is they didn’t get accepted in that country and we are a lesser body to cling to. Especially when senior figures have repeatedly pursued these players.
“I only feel like that when they first join up. The moment you go on that pitch and don the green and white shirt and play your heart out, I forget about what’s happened.”
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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