The FIFA World Cup has a way of reminding people, especially footballers, of their origins and who they really are. Almost every four years, there are stories of players raising their hands declaring their patriotism, proclaiming, “It has always been my dream to play for my country of birth and represent my people”, as they confirm their availability for selection, should the head coach choose to do so.
The irony is that some of these players have been in the international football arena and even represented European countries at junior national team level. When the senior national teams caps are hard to come by in Europe, they suddenly remember that they have a home in the Mother Land. There is a plethora of reasons why players switch their nationality and we are going to try and visit as many of them as possible, trying to understand why almost every World Cup we have players who raise their hands and avail themselves for selection. For the uninitiated, a footballer is allowed to play international games for one country, as long as they’ve not turned 21, and go on to change their nationality to play for a different national team. This happens mostly with players who have dual citizenship through either being born in a different country than their parents’ country of birth or being born out of parents of different nationalities. A typical example is the Bayern Leverkusen winger, on loan from Chelsea, Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was born in England and represented the national team from U16 all the way to U21 while his origins are traced all the way from Ghana, as his father is former Hearts of Oak Ghanaian midfielder Bismack Odoi. Until recently, there was talk of Callum possibly ‘coming home’ and representing the Black Sars, but nothing has come of that rumor although it remains a possibility.
Adama Traore was born in Spain, to Malian parents, got called up to Mali and Spain in the same international break and he decided to heed the Spanish call=up and went on to earn eight senior caps for La Roja and he’s over 21, which means he now can’t switch to Mali anymore, even though he stands a better chance of game=time in coach Eric Chelle’s team. Truth be told, there’s almost no chance of him getting called up by Luis Enrique to the Spanish senior team ever again because he’s simply not good enough to unseat anyone from the team, at the moment. You can argue that he was called up almost intentionally by the coaches and the Spanish Football Association to stop him from being available for Mali. This is a player who had committed to Mali, only for Enrique to call him up for Spain and he changed his mind. He was on a bit of form at the time and played three games in the same international break and he’s not been a regular at all, since then.
It happens that African players get called up by European national teams, get promised heaven and earth, play a couple of games and never get called up again. It is also not foreign for European national teams and associations to call an African player up at junior level and even introduce him to the senior national team set-up just to tie him up, in case they need him at a later stage. Some are also doing it to avoid the club-versus-country situation which happens a lot with African players, where they have to spend a lot of time travelling and playing for their national team while the club needs them for league commitments.
You also get those European-based players who switch to their African origins purely because they want to play at the World Cup and showcase their talents there, with the hope to catch someone’s eye for a better contract elsewhere. You look at the following players, for instance – they’ve all only made their African countries’ debuts in September after representing European countries at junior level for years and you wonder why only now? They are now at the Qatar FIFA World Cup, mission accomplished!
• Tariq Lamptey – capped 20 times for England at youth level before switching to Ghana (born in London)
• Inaki Williams – capped 17 times for Spain at youth level, played once for Spain senior team before switching to Ghana (born in Spain)
• Ransford-Yeboah K?nigsd?rffer – capped at youth level for Germany before switching to Ghana (born in Germany)
• Yan Valery – capped for France at youth level before switching to Tunisia (born in France)
• Bryan Mbeumo – capped for France at youth level before switching to Cameroon (born in France)
There’s also the well-documented case of Kevin Prince-Boateng, who badly wanted to play at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa by changing his allegiance and went on to also represent Ghana at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
While some people might think it is a good thing for these countries to have these players coming back, the message is simply clear: ‘Africa, you are second best! If I can’t make it in Europe, I will come back ‘home’ and you will sacrifice a committed player for me to get a spot to go to the World Cup and then I will ditch you afterwards. As long as I tell you it has always been my dream to represent my country, you will be accommodating and understanding.’ You also get patriotic players like Manchester United youngster, Hannibal Mejbri, who, at around 17, decided already that he was going to play for Tunisia even though he was born in France and represented them at junior national level. He could have played for the French but decided to commit to his parents’ country of birth and made his international debut in a 1-0 win against DR Congo in June 2021. This is the same approach that was taken by Gabon international and all-time top goalscorer and Chelsea striker, Pierre-Emerick Emiliano Francois Aubameyang, who refused to turn his back on his father’s country of origin. Born out of former Gabonese international midfielder Pierre Aubameyang and a Spanish lady and growing up in France, the Chelsea marksman was not short of options but still chose Gabon as his country of origin.
The bottom line is that there are different nuances to it and you will remember that both Andre and Jordan Ayew were born in France but their father, Abedi is a Ghanaian legend and they identified with the Black Stars from a very young age already. As much as we have players born in the African continent and choosing to play for European countries, we’ve also had players who decided to do it the other way around. These are the players who made a conscious decision to represent their African countries even when they could have easily opted to associate with Europe. Interestingly, outside of the World Cup period, you seldom hear of any player changing their citizenship. None of these European-based African players ever avail themselves for selection for the Afcon or even World Cup qualifiers, where they travel the length and breadth of the continent playing in obscure countries with questionable facilities. The long hours at the airport, in transit, from one country to another doesn’t sound appealing enough for any of these players until the biggest event in the sporting calendar approaches. We see you!
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