Kalidou Koulibaly of SSC Napoli in action during the Serie A football match between SSC Napoli and FC Internazionale at Diego Armando Maradona stadium in Italy. Image Source: Reuters Andrea Staccioli / Insidefoto /Sipa USA.
The conversation on brawn drain – the act of players with African roots pledging their football loyalty to European nations – was partly sparked by France’s 2018 World Cup-winning squad in conversations that went like this: what would have happened had Zinedine Zidane (who is of Algerian descent) and N’golo Kante (whose parents are from Mali) played for the countries of their parental heritage? The question lingered much as the majority of the Black African French players in the World Cup-winning squad were born in France. However, an interesting trend is happening today where footballers worthy of a call-up in European national teams have snubbed countries such as Spain and France and chosen to play for African countries.
What it is: It so happens that players born in Europe to African parents are now choosing to play for African countries instead of their European countries of birth; Geoffrey Kondogbia of Central African Republic, Moroccan Mehdi Benatia, Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all born in France. Achraf Hakimi was born in Spain but plays for Morocco. This was even more apparent during the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) where the Lions of Teranga, the winning Senegalese squad consisted of players such as Bouna Sarr, Abdou Diallo, Nampalys Mendy, Edouard Mendy all of whom were born in France. Further North, Tunisia’s Wahbi Kazri was born in France while Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech is of Dutch nationality. Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal’s captain was born and bred in France and even went through the football ranks in the European country. He also played for the French Under 20 team. That he chose to play for the Lions of Teranga was one of the talking points for commentators in any Senegal match.
Why it matters: What is interesting about the current change of European-born players playing for African countries is that the players are good enough to play for their European teams. For France for example, the team is picture perfect on paper, featuring top players in top European leagues. Koulibaly however is of equal calibre and one of the most revered defenders in the Italian league where he plays for club Napoli. Hakim Ziyech, a 2021 UEFA Champions League winner is of equal talent. That he chose to represent Morocco over a dutch team that looks like a shadow of its former self is significant. Compared to the Dutch players, it is most probable that Ziyech would walk into the first eleven of the Clockwork Orange.
The Big Picture: Morocco, just like Senegal, has a significant number of players who grew up in Europe but chose to represent the North African nation. An interesting facet because the North African country hardly identifies as an African nation. In 1987, the country lobbied to be part of the European Union. But their players are nurtured in European football academies, play in their junior national teams and then represent Morocco at the senior level and the World Cup.
Vox, an American media company, did an explainer as to why so many footballers come from France. One interesting fact is that France has had the most native players and coaches in the last four World Cups. This is attributed to France recruiting labourers from different parts of the world after the second world war, to rebuild the nation. Around that time, France also set up structures to boost the national football team.
Riyad Mahrez, A French-born Algerian and also one of the most wicked-left-footed players in world football, explained to Skysports that France produces lots of good footballers because of the social set-up in the country merged with well-built infrastructures of pitches and gyms.
Yes, but: Much as the brawn drain to Africa helps the countries compete on the global stage, specifically, the World Cup, it serves little purpose to home-grown footballers in the local leagues. International matches are not just avenues for stars to represent their countries but also for lowly known footballers to market themselves; a chance they are deprived of when European born players play for African countries. At one point, Mehdi Benatia turned down an opportunity to play for Morocco saying he was out of form and did not deserve special treatment because he played in Europe.
The question then is how it affects footballers born in Africa who lose out to playing in the national team because of European born footballers and how this affects the capitalization of local talent.