Divided loyalties

When Fredi Kanoute decided to play for Mali he did so with the kind of talk that would make Frantz Fanon and other black thinkers sit up and take note. ”Though I am French, born in France, and I grew up there, I always took my holidays in Mali. And inside me, something always said, ‘You are of Malian origin.’ I am not just French, I am also Malian.”

As top scorer for Spain’s La Liga last season, Kanoute’s importance for his country became all too obvious when he scored the only goal in Mali’s match against Benin in their opening fixture at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Kanoute is a classic case of someone with split loyalties. Another example is Ivorian striker Salomon Kalou, who wanted to glow in Holland’s orange instead of the orange worn by his native Côte d’Ivoire. Had he got his European Union passport in time for the last World Cup, the whole rationale for national competitions would have come under question.

He would have squared up against his brother, Bonaventure, who was a key member of the Ivorian team.

Senegalese cousins Ibrahima Sonko of Reading and Bacary Sagna of Arsenal are other examples. Sagna plays for France and his cousin plays for their native country. It would be intriguing to see them play against each other — as they did in the opening game of the World Cup in 2002 when Senegal beat France 1-0.

Two blood relatives of different nationality pitted against each other. But Sagna, it is said, did make a strong effort to play for his native Senegal. His father reportedly asked the Senegalese team to consider his son for selection. When they didn’t show any interest the French were willing to consider him.

The French team perhaps has the biggest contingent of ”foreigners” and they have had influential immigrants on their books. These include Algerian-born Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Patrick Vieira of Senegal and Malian-born Jean Tigana. The new Zidane, Algerian-born Samir Nasri, grew up in Marseille, like Zidane. He turned down the opportunity to represent Algeria.

With a name that recalls Abu Dhabi, the second city of the United Arab Emirates, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby’s identity was always going to be an issue. The Parisian-born midfielder could have turned out for Côte d’Ivoire, where his parents were born, but has instead answered the call from the French.

Not many people can boast of a maritime connection in the way that Rio Antonio Mavuba does. And for that reason one can understand his refusal to play for the DRC — his father’s birthplace — or Angola, his mother’s birthplace, despite his father having played for the then Zaire in the 1974 World Cup. Mavuba chose instead to represent the French, even though his passport says he was born in international waters.

Welsh left back for Derby County, Lewin Nyatanga, has a Zimbabwean father and a Welsh mother. If we had had a talk before he made his choice, I would have advised him to play for Zimbabwe as he would have had a greater chance of winning something. The Cosafa Cup, after all, does count as silverware.

By now the anti-imperialists should be nodding their heads knowingly, but evidence suggests that it’s not a north-south phenomenon — countries on the continent have also benefited. Tunisia scored when Brazilian born Francileudo Silva Dos Santos washed up in Tunis, helping them win the Cup of Nations in 2004.

Similarly, the muscular Arsenal striker, Togo national Emmanuel Adebayor, is originally from Nigeria. His athleticism and goal scoring have more than put Togo, one of Africa’s representatives at the last World Cup, on the world football map. Then there is Benjani Mwaruwaru, the Zimbabwean striker who could have played for Malawi, the home of his parents.

Former world footballer of the year George Weah, despite repeated courting by the French establishment, refused to play for them, opting to play, outfit and be the general moneyman for Liberia’s team. It was not a thankless job — the Liberians reciprocated by almost voting him in as president of the country.

Sometimes Africa’s loss is in fact a gain for the continent, as in the case of Jean-Alain Boumsong. Born in Douala, Cameroon, he was on the books of English premiership side Newcastle. The team’s fans shake their heads and grin mirthlessly as they recall some of the most shambolic defending ever seen at high level.

Now a French citizen, Boumsong is in two minds about his stay in England: ”My Newcastle experience wasn’t as negative as people say,” he says on the one hand, and on the other: ”The English media were particularly hard on me. They really went wild … OK, I admit it, I’m not Franz Beckenbauer.”

One wishes the French would take more players of his calibre. Relieved of Boumsong types, Cameroon have a greater chance of winning a fifth African title, even though their defensive display against Egypt (they lost 4-2) shows they are still capable of playing as if Boumsong is in the team.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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