Why you should care
Africa is getting some of its best talent back as soccer players turn away from Europe.
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M’Baye Niang had come onto the field just seconds earlier, following treatment for an injury, when he saw the chance of a lifetime. Poland, seemingly unaware that Niang was back on, played the ball to their goalkeeper. Niang, born to Senegalese immigrants in north-central France, raced after the ball, tickled it past a defender and the goalkeeper and toed it into the vacant net. The commentators called the goal controversial. For Niang, though, this was redemption. And for African World Cup soccer teams, it was a moment of vindication.
Back in 2013, Senegal had called up a teenage Niang, a rising star in the European leagues, to play for the country in a match against Zambia. Niang — who had earlier indicated interest in playing for the country of his parents — refused, picking club over nation. That decision sparked criticism and newspaper columns questioning his fidelity to the Senegalese soccer cause. But the national team continued to pursue him. Niang’s goal secured a crucial World Cup win last week against a Polish side ranked eighth in the world, 19 spots above Senegal. Now 24, Niang is again on the front pages in Senegal — only this time, as a hero.
It’s a great story.
Wiebe Boer, soccer analyst and author
Niang is among a growing number of African-origin players born or naturalized in Europe who are returning to represent the countries of their parents at tournaments like the World Cup, aided by eligibility rule relaxations in 2004 and 2008 by FIFA, the sport’s governing body. When German-born Kevin-Prince Boateng represented Ghana — the country his parents emigrated from — at the 2010 World Cup, he stood out because his appeared an isolated case. In fact, it was the start of a pattern that has since expanded, despite tensions over player loyalties.
The number of foreign-naturalized players representing African teams went up from 27 at the 2010 World Cup to 30 at the 2014 World Cup. At the current World Cup in Russia, 37 players born or brought up in Europe are playing for African teams: 17 for Morocco, nine for Senegal, six for Nigeria and five for Tunisia.
“It’s a great story,” says Wiebe Boer, soccer analyst and author of A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria (1904–1960), pointing out how traditionally, “immigrant children played for their adopted countries.”
For decades, the phenomenon of foreign-origin soccer players representing countries was restricted to flows from poorer to richer nations, or between wealthy countries. The legendary Eusébio, who starred for Portugal at the 1966 World Cup, was born in Maputo, Mozambique. France had a Black captain as early as the 1978 World Cup. The U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup had multiple German-born players — sons and grandsons of American soldiers and German mothers — some of whom couldn’t even speak English, recalls Boer. As recently as the 2006 World Cup, France’s hopes lived — and eventually died — with the performance of the Algerian-origin Zinedine Zidane.
Now, the tide is turning. According to a FIFA study in the lead-up to the World Cup, 29 percent of the national players from African teams at the Russia event are foreign-born, compared with just 9 percent for European teams, 3 percent for North and Central American sides, and 2 percent each for Asia and South America. This shift has been facilitated by FIFA rules that now allow players who represent one nation at the junior level to play for the senior team of another if either they, their parents or grandparents were born in the latter country. But the reasons run far deeper, suggests Ifreke Inyang, sports editor at Daily Post, a Nigerian newspaper.
To African national teams, these players represent a cadre of potential stars trained with the world’s best coaching and facilities and groomed in intensely competitive European leagues. For youngsters who went abroad early in search of greener pastures or were born to parents who did, playing for the country of their parents’ roots gives them a chance to connect to their heritage. Others feel more genuinely wanted in African teams than in European ones, where racial undercurrents are often not far away, argues Inyang. Boer believes some players choose the country of their parental ancestry because they know they may not make the national team of the country they were born and raised in, while others are genuinely “proud of their ancestry” and want to celebrate it. “I really think it’s a combination,” he says.
The strategy doesn’t work all the time. Morocco and Tunisia have already been knocked out of the World Cup. And while French-born players in these North African teams have rarely suffered any backlash because of the strong diasporic links these countries share with France, tensions over loyalty have flared up in other nations. Nigerian-born, U.K.-raised forward Victor Moses has faced criticism for picking which matches he plays for Nigeria, even though analysts point out the practice of choosing club contests over international games is a global phenomenon. It doesn’t help Moses that he compares unfavorably with John Mikel Obi, Nigeria’s much-loved captain, who appeared for his country at the 2016 Olympics against the wishes of his Chelsea coach Antonio Conte. And Niang has had to publicly acknowledge he “made mistakes” in not playing for Senegal when he was requested to in the past.
But the two most successful African nations at the 2018 World Cup — Nigeria and Senegal — have both relied heavily on these players. Moses and Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi, who moved from Lagos to London at the age of 4, scored five of the 12 goals that helped Nigeria qualify for the World Cup. Iwobi’s strike last September helped the Super Eagles, as the team is known to its fans, seal their spot in Russia. At the heart of Nigeria’s defense is the pairing of German-born Leon Balogun and Dutch-born William Troost-Ekong. When a third defender, Russian-born Bryan Idowu, was substituted by Nigeria in their 2-0 win over Iceland last week, the man who came in was Dutch-born Tyronne Ebuehi, already earmarked at the age of 22 for greatness by Nigerian analysts.
“He is head and shoulders above any fullback I have watched play for Nigeria in recent years,” says Inyang. “His foreign football education gives him a clear edge.” It’s an edge African players long provided European sides. Now, it’s driving Africa’s soccer fortunes.