The African diaspora based in Europe on display at Afcon

Thirty years ago, the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals were an exotic adventure and a bit of a bus man’s vacation. There were only eight teams and most gathered in one hotel, lounging around the pool when not playing or training and mingling in a friendly way at the buffet meal.

There was also always a handful of Boy Scouts on site. The tournament was quickly becoming a source of exciting talent at a time when European leagues liberalized their rules on the use of foreign players and the market opened up to the cream of African footballers.

The 1992 final in Senegal, where South Africa was welcomed back into the Confederation of African Football (CAF) at the pre-tournament congress, had only a handful of overseas-based players.

But even then, there were already players born in Europe taking part in the tournament – two from the Algerian side and full-back Reuben Agboola for Nigeria.

He was originally from Camden in London and had a Nigerian father, and his last name had alerted the Super Eagles to his connection to the country as he rose through the ranks of English football with players like Sunderland and Swansea City.

Along with Ali Bouafia and Liazid Sandjak, he was an exotic addition to the tournament.

But there was nothing to indicate that the trio would prove to be the precursor of a phenomenon which now dominates the African game and will be visible during the next final in Cameroon.

European breed players

The 33rd edition of the Continental Championship kicks off in Cameroon on January 9, 2022 and will be filled with players born in Europe. The French call them “binational” – players born to African parents who have the advantage of being from the European development system where the coaching, facilities and opportunities give them a distinct advantage over their counterparts who grew up in Africa. .

Migration north over the decades has created a generation with a foothold on either continent … and, in football terms, a huge pool of ready-made talent from which African national teams can. Choose.

Many players actively court in the Diaspora, employing scouts to try to persuade them to gamble.

For the most part, “binationals” are players who have a fleeting chance to play international football for the European country of their birth. They are much more likely to be crowned by their African home country and can be easily persuaded by the possibility of making a Nations Cup final, or better yet, the World Cup.

On rare occasions, there has been a real showdown between top talent, such as Morocco winning a battle of the heart with the Netherlands against Hakim Ziyech.

It can either be a choice of heart or a choice of pragmatism. Frenchman Andy Delort suddenly decided to start his career in Ligue 1, which he wanted to play for Algeria a few months before the 2019 continental final.

They were also keen on the striker and because his mother was Algerian he was quickly naturalized in time to be selected for the tournament. “Life is complicated, we discover each other a little later. It’s a personal decision. I want to wear Algeria’s jersey, ”Delort said at the time.

With him in its ranks, the Algerian team of 23 players that won the last Nations Cup in Egypt had 14 players born in France and nine born in the country.

Algeria and Morocco may have some of the strongest national leagues in Africa, but these days there is rarely a player from a home club who makes the squad.

No premises

More and more, the French-speaking sides are moving in the same direction, in particular Senegal. Guinea and Mali also do not have ‘locals’, and Ghana and Nigeria are increasingly looking to their large emigrant communities in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands for gamers. .

But just as many of the major competitors benefit from this source, the impact on some of Africa’s smaller countries has been even greater.

The islands of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are two former Portuguese colonies which, in the 1990s, still entered the continental qualifications intermittently. They often did not have the means or the players to make the qualifiers for the World Cup or the Nations Cup.

But this is the third time the two have advanced to the Nations Cup finals in the past decade in a remarkable rise through the African football echelons, in large part thanks to effective search around the world to looking for talent to strengthen their national team.

For both countries, the majority of the team is now born to parents who left the colonies to work in Portugal. But Cape Verde also has a large community in the Netherlands, especially in the suburbs around the port of Rotterdam.

Several of their regulars are now born in the Netherlands and have difficulty communicating with their teammates.

Guinea-Bissau also has a community based in France, which historically crossed through neighboring Senegal before crossing the Mediterranean.

The most extraordinary reservoir is in Marseille, where a large community of migrants from the Comoros has gathered over the decades.

While it does not compete in any way with the millions of inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island archipelago itself, it is of significant size to provide the backbone of the key players who have helped the small country to qualify for a first Nations Cup final.

Coach Amir Abdou is from Marseille and his first task, when he took office about eight years ago, was to persuade players in the diaspora to join the squad, gradually shifting the level of those from the amateur ranks to high level players. three levels of French football.

“It was difficult, but I don’t think any of them regrets anything,” recalls Abdou. “It’s a fervor, a love for the jersey and for the country.”

Abdou spent as much time coaching and preparing internationals as he did organizing trips and even the team kit. Sometimes he had to dip into his pocket to help with logistics and he was part-time until 2017, when the offer of a stingy monthly salary of just 2,000 euros gave him enough leeway to leave his job. employment in the service of youth in Agen. .

As for the scouts… well, that’s no use anymore and they’re long gone. By the time the players reach the Nations Cup final, they have long been spotted and found their place in the professional ranks. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest dealer, please click here.


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