Sport is a useful lens through which aspects of national identity can be examined. This is especially true for football, given its popularity and global reach.
Football teams are often portrayed as the epitome of a nation. They are the bearers of the hopes and dreams of the people. How do footballers with African roots choose their national team?
However, we increasingly see footballers playing for a country different from the one in which they were born or raised. This is allowed if they are eligible for the citizenship of that country. The reasons for this transition can be highlighted by the often complex, multiple, and random nature of national identity.
How Do Footballers With African Roots Choose Their National Team
A study was conducted on African players. It showed that these players choose the country they represent for a variety of reasons. Some players may be motivated by a cultural affinity. For others, it is an opportunity to play football at a high level and advance their careers.
In recent years, several African states have decided to select players who were born outside their parents’ home countries. The large African diaspora in Europe offers a wide range of talented football players.
The colonial history of migration and constant communication means that many European players have strong ethnic and family ties with African countries, so it makes sense to use this resource.
For some time, Morocco and Algeria were the two countries that benefited the most from their diasporas. They relied heavily on footballers of Algerian or Moroccan descent, born in Europe, such as Riyad Mahrez and Sofiane Boufal.
Some of these players represented France in their youth teams but chose to play for their parent’s country at the highest international level.
This phenomenon is obvious when looking at African teams in recent international tournaments. Of the 368 players registered for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, 93 were born outside the country they represented.
Most of them (69) were born in France. Another 22 players, although born in Africa, grew up in a European country.
To them, you can add 93 football players who played for a country in which they were not born or where they did not live from a young age.
Five African countries took part in the finals at the 2018 World Cup. Morocco had 15 players who were born in Europe and two more who grew up in Europe.
Tunisia and Senegal had nine, while Nigeria had four (plus two more who grew up in Europe). A total of 38 players from these five countries were born in Europe, most of them in France (25).
In the 2019 African Cup of Nations, in which 552 players registered for the tournament, 129 were born outside the country they represent.
Again, most of them were born in France – 86 people. And another 30 players grew up in a different country than the one in which they were born.
Nineteen players of the Moroccan national team were born outside the country, ten of them in France; fourteen players of the Algerian national team were born in France.
In general, Francophone African countries in North and West Africa appear to be more likely to use their diaspora. France’s colonial past leaves an important imprint on modern African sports.
Some footballers have made it clear, that identity issues influence their decision.
For example, former Cameroonian national team player Benoit Assou-Ekotto (son of a Cameroonian football player – immigrant), who was born in France, has publicly expressed a strong sense of Cameroonian identity.
“Playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal choice. I have no feelings for the French team, it just doesn’t exist. When people in France ask my generation “where are you from?” They answer Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon, or other African countries. ”
His comments appear to reflect a broader range of issues related to the marginalization and discrimination of ethnic minorities in France and elsewhere, highlighting resentment and rejection of French identity.
More pragmatic questions can be seen in the case of Joelle Chiassumbois, who was born in Switzerland. On a television program, the young goalkeeper at the time showed little interest in his father’s country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ultimately, he still entered the DRC national team.
In 2013, Seido Berahino, who was born in Burundi but came to the UK as a refugee at the age of ten, spoke of his desire to play for England:
“I want to play at the highest level with the best players in the best tournaments.”
Five years later, he said he would “always be Burundian” and left to play for the national team.
Maybe Paul Pogba is happy to play for the French national team, but if he were less talented, this opportunity probably would not have been and he would have followed the decision of his brothers to represent his parents’ country – Guinea.
Professional motives can be the basis of many decisions, but they certainly also reflect the duality of the players’ identities. Obviously, the player’s past shapes his identity, but the broader socio-political context can also influence it.
Whatever the players’ feelings and motives, choosing a “sporting nationality” that may differ from “official” citizenship reinforces the need to view player identities as flexible rather than fixed and unchanging.