In the build up to a major international tournament there is the inevitable recruitment drive of managers attempting to reinforce their squads and increase their options. The vogue among head coaches of African national teams has been to turn to overseas talent, and those with African roots, to supplement their sides.
Whilst the debacle of Equatorial Guinea’s recruitment scheme ahead of the last Afcon threatened to leave an ugly stain on the tournament, the calibre of players of African extraction performing for European nations at Euro 2012 demonstrated the genuine quality that exists among legitimate African players not playing for their respective African nations. It was almost painful to imagine a Ghanaian starting XI including both Mario Balotelli and Danny Welbeck.
This process consistently raises issues of identity and belonging among Africa’s disaporic communities. The events of the last few weeks have revealed the intricate and complex dynamics that exist within these communities and in the consciousnesses of many of those Africans living beyond their homelands.
Few countries provide a finer example of these tensions than Nigeria. With a population of over 150 million, Stephen Keshi’s domestic talent pool is not exactly limited, but with between 10 and 20 million Nigerians estimated to be living outside of Naija, the potential for exterior recruitment is enormous.
The last batch of Super Eagles called up for the recent friendly against Venezuela in Miami demonstrated the diaspora’s potential to provide. Seeking an alternative up front to the speedy, explosive strikers usually employed, Keshi called up both Bright Dike and Shola Ameobi – two players of Nigerian extraction from different parts of the world who offer a more physical threat.
Whilst unlikely to make the Afcon squad, Dike was a bright addition to the squad, and performed admirably in the 68 minutes he received. Born in Oklahoma, to Nigerian parents, he impressed with his energy and determined running, and there was something of the Rashidi Yekini about his bullish display up front.
Ameobi is a slightly different story: a former England u21 international, the 2004 FIFA ruling allowing players to switch nationalities favoured those in his position. It became clear some time ago that Ameobi would struggle to break into the full England side; without being prolific, and with several other ‘old fashioned centre forwards’ ahead of him in the pecking order, that ship appeared to have sailed.
But the ruling meant that Nigeria could finally benefit from his services, and at 31, after several false dawns with the national side, Ameobi finally strode out for the Super Eagles, and became, in the Autumn of his career, an international player. It was a precedent already set by Sone Aluko, now of Hull, once of England U19s, and himself hopeful of a call up for the Nigerian Afcon squad.
Like Dike, Ameobi was clearly ebullient to finally be making his bow for the country of his parents, and he can be fairly confident that his know-how, as well as his experience of playing in one of the world’s top divisions, will be called upon by Keshi come January 9th – the date when squad lists for the Afcon are to be submitted to CAF.
Ameobi’s recognition brought the international future of another Nigeria-born former England U21 star into the spotlight.
Like Ameobi, Nedum Onuoha comes from a Nigerian family, and like the Newcastle man, Onuoha was a regular for the England youth teams, before failing to take the step up to the full international side. The influx of wealth coming into City at the time when the academy talent was still a young player came at the wrong time, and the defender was soon lost in the shuffle. A move to QPR is yet to work out quite as Onuoha surely would have hoped, but he has proved in spells, particularly at Sunderland on loan, that he is more than capable of being a competent Premier League regular.
At 26, and with numerous players ahead of him in the pecking order for England, it would seem that the time has come for Onuoha to throw his hat into the ring with Nigeria. The recent international debuts of Ryan Shawcross and Steven Caulker demonstrate that he has quite a few players to outmuscle to even get a look in with the Three Lions.
The Super Eagles, on the other hand, are crying out for a player of Onuoha’s class, versatility, professionalism, and experience. With local talents Godfrey Oboabona and Azbuike Egwuekwe rarely looking convincing, and Nigeria skipper Joseph Yobo coming towards the end of his career, it would seem the time is now for the Warri-born stopper to make a home for himself at the heart of the Naija defence.
And yet, there appears to be no desire on Onuoha’s behalf to make this commitment. He and the Super Eagles had courted each other ahead of the 2010 World Cup – but all of the romantic exchanges and longing eye contact came to nothing, as Lars Lagerbeck gave up on his man, who was already pencilled into the World Cup squad, and moved onto other prospects. Indeed, despite Stephen Keshi intimating recently that Nedum was in his plans, Musa Amadu, the general secretary of the NFF admitted that despite an eagerness to enlist Onuoha, the federation had received little indication that the Rangers centreback would accept an invitation to play for the West African nation.
Will Nedum finally concede that his future lies with Nigeria, or is Onuoha destined to become a Super Eagle that got away, much like Emmanuel Olisadebe, Gaby Agbonlahor, Dennis Aogo, and latterly, David Alaba?
The Onuoha situation is almost mirrored in the Congolese Federation’s impasse with Steven N’Zonzi. After impressing for Blackburn in their ill-fated campaign last season, the dynamic midfielder retained his Premier League status after transferring to Stoke City in the summer. Even though Tony Pulis’s team are struggling in the division this season, N’Zonzi’s performances have once more been composed, energetic, and consistent.
This has led to an approach from the DR Congo, keen to recruit the French-born midfielder ahead of the Afcon. At 23, and with Pulis telling anyone who listens that N’Zonzi is Champions League player in the making, it is perhaps reasonable that he holds out for France a little longer. He is, after all, a former U21 international, and after being born and raised in the banlieues of Paris, has a profound connection to France.
Still, with the likes of Blaise Matuidi, Moussa Sissoko, Yann M’Vila, Rio Mavuba, and Lassana Diarra all ahead of him in the French midfield hierarchy, and all, incidentally, of African origin, it may be more realistic of N’Zonzi to aim for an international career in the heart of the Leopards’ midfield, rather than on the sidelines at the Stade de France.
It is a lesson that Mauritian midfielder Vikash Dhorasoo learned only too well during his France ‘career’.
An interesting comparison can be made between Victor Moses and Wilfried Zaha. Ostensibly, the two are very similar – both shot onto the scene as products of the Crystal Palace academy, both tore through opposition in the English Championship, both were born in West Africa, and crucially, both appear primed for long careers at the top of the sport.
Yet a crucial difference appears to be emerging with regards to their international destinies. Victor Moses is awaiting the Afcon with relish, having chosen to play for Nigeria after excelling on youth duty with England. After making his debut in February of this year, the Chelsea starlet has progressed to become a central component of Nigeria’s first XI. His goals and direct running have devastated African opposition, and a good performance at this Afcon could lead to Moses becoming a genuine superstar in his home nation.
For Zaha, the future is far murkier. An England debutant against Sweden last week, the FA’s decision to enlist him has been criticised by his club boss Ian Holloway, convinced that the Three Lions are pressurising the 20 year old to commit to them and to not the country of his birth, Cote d’Ivoire. Zaha does have a decision to make, but it seems unlikely that having represented England so recently he would accept a call-up for the Nations Cup.
Perhaps this supremely talented young forward is destined to become another of the ‘ones who got away’ from Africa, another reluctant African like Onuoha and N’Zonzi who rejects the opportunity to represent the nation of their parents.
Perhaps it will prove to be a good decision, perhaps Zaha will go on to fame and fortune with the English national side, but watch Ameobi, watch Moses, watch Victor Anichebe as they line up to sing ‘Arise, O Compatriots’ before the Super Eagles’ Afcon opener against Burkina Faso on the 21st of January – watch, and tell me that they made the wrong decision.
Reluctant Africans – Dilemmas of identity as the Afcon Approaches