COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
In 2002, Senegal produced one of the biggest shocks in the history of world football. Beating the World and European champions was one thing; that scalp being France was even sweeter. There was, at the time, disparaging talk around the quality of the Teranga Lions, playing up just how much of a mismatch this was considered to be.
The late, great Bruno Metsu captured it best: "People are saying we are like a French reserve team. Listen, we have quality players, players who are good enough to get into the full French squad."
With most of their team based in France, it was a moral victory over a former colonial master which seemed to liberate Senegal. They played with great freedom and exuberance, and became the second African side, after Cameroon, to reach the last eight at the World Cup.
It may, however, had gone very differently.
El Hadji Diouf may have been the star of the side, but the talisman was winger Khalilou Fadiga. Initially though, he had expressed a desire to play for Belgium, for whom he was eligible by marriage, and had rejected call-ups up until the Africa Cup of Nations in 2000. Advised as to the futility of his ambition, he would eventually relent and pitch his international tent with Senegal. History would ultimately bear out his choice.
Increasingly though, the opposite choice is becoming more and more common. Now more than ever, there are players of African descent turning out for European sides, the latest being Nathaniel Chalobah, who received his maiden England call-up last week. His summer move to Watford has finally afforded him the consistent playing time denied him at Chelsea, and has precipitated a reunion with boss Gareth Southgate, with whom he collaborated at Under-21 level.
Spare a thought then for Sierra Leone, land of his birth, who have never qualified for a World Cup and have only twice participated in the Africa Cup of Nations. They certainly will not better this record losing players as talented as Chalobah. The socio-economic realities of the African continent, as well as the level of football development, mean that for footballers to reach the outer limit of their potential, they must play in Europe. The paradox then is that they never return.
This talent drain puts African nations at a significant disadvantage, as they simply cannot compete with the opportunities and administrative infrastructure obtainable in Europe. As a result, their plea is often simply an emotional one, the heft of which is diminishing daily as football is slowly ingested by the greed and cloying self-interest that lies at its core.
For some, strong family ties that emphasize national identity will do the trick, but that is often the exception rather than the rule. George Weah remains the only African player to win the Fifa Balon D’Or award, and is bidding for president in his native Liberia. Next month, his son Timothy will represent the USA at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup.
Of course, to paint it as a simple moral choice is at best naïve and, at worst, disingenuous. Identity has reached peak diaphaneity, and there are no simple answers to the dilemma of which nation has a moral right to a human being; it comes right down to the whole debate of nature vs nurture. Chalobah, born in Freetown but raised in England, has a right to determine his own identity, same as Yannick Bolasie, born in France but opting to play for DR Congo, did and continues to do—just watch him dance!
However, there is an increasing sense that, just like with the Senegal 2002 vintage, only those deemed not good enough to get called up by European nations opt for African sides; a ready fall-back to have in the face of rejection. Ivory Coast, who have sought to turn a page with Marc Wilmots at the helm, have had an influx of talent via this exact same route, most notably in the case of Chelsea’s Jeremie Boga, highly-rated but with his career bogged down in the quicksand that is the Blues’ circuitous loan network.
Kevin-Prince Boateng has made no bones about this either, stating repeatedly that he opted for Ghana simply because Germany would not have him. His half-brother Jerome, the less volatile of the two (true to type, the elder Boateng was cast out from the fold following a spat with the DFB’s Technical Director Mathias Sammer), made the opposite choice, and has a World Cup winner’s medal to show. Prince though has not done badly for himself, and starred for the Black Stars in their run to the World Cup Quarter Final in 2010.
If indeed Europe will always get the best of the bunch, how then can African sides be expected to compete on the world stage, especially as the gap continues to widen by the richest and poorest nations?
As like as not, the present surrogacy remains the best option for nurturing talent, as the underdevelopment of football on the continent is simply a local manifestation of a wider malaise; football, after all, does not function in a bubble. Until self-sufficiency is fostered though, Africa will continue to make do with falls off the tree, while Europe gets the prime pickings.
This makes any kind of long-term focus or planning nigh on impossible. In the brilliant book ‘Das Reboot’, Raphael Honigstein outlines and then details a decade-long blueprint that culminated in Germany winning the World Cup in 2014. The success of Spain in 2010 and beyond was built on the Cruyffian ideals inculcated in Barcelona’s La Masia academy.
Without being able to plan around a core of its best players, no African side will be breaking that World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling anytime soon.