/ 6 December 2022

Africa’s lesson of this World Cup: Your diaspora is your friend

Hakim Ziyech of Morocco celebrates with teammates after scoring the team's first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Canada and Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The African challenge at the World Cup has been winnowed down to just one side: Morocco. They are unlikely to defy the odds against Spain tomorrow, but there’s no doubt they have been the slickest, toughest and most balanced African force at these finals.

Coach Walid Regragui deserves plenty of credit for the Atlas Lions’ hot form, but so does the deep talent reservoir of the Moroccan diaspora. For the first time in its World Cup history, the majority of this Moroccan squad and first-choice lineup weren’t born in the kingdom they are representing. 

Three of the starting XI against Canada were born and raised in France, three in the Netherlands and one in Canada, with only four home-born starters. This is a dramatic reversal of the situation back in 1998, when the entire Moroccan World Cup squad included only two diaspora players.

At one level, this simply reflects the delayed effects of decades of Moroccan migration to Europe. The national talent base has gradually expanded beyond the national borders. But it’s also clear that diaspora players have an edge over their cousins back home. They receive better formative training and get earlier promotion to senior club football at the game’s European epicentre.

The Moroccan public doesn’t mind their dominance, because their diaspora stars tend to identify with Morocco and retain strong ties to the motherland. And there is no sense that a diaspora player’s decision to play for the Atlas Lions means giving up on a bigger dream of playing for the land they grew up in.

For example, flying fullback Achraf Hakimi would walk into this Spain national side. Similarly, crafty winger Hakim Ziyech and central midfielder Sofiane Amrabat are more than good enough to play for the Netherlands, but they chose Morocco instead.

By contrast, it’s hard to imagine Bukayo Saka opting to play Nigeria, or Breel Embolo opting for Cameroon. Perhaps the difference is that those two players have felt embraced by England and Switzerland in a way that youngsters of North African background often do not feel embraced by France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Perhaps being part of a large, marginalised and insular immigrant community, often besieged by anti-Arab racism, can deepen a bond with that community’s ancestral identity.

Granted, Sub-Saharan national sides have also recruited world-class talent from the diaspora pool in the past — Didier Drogba, Freddie Kanouté and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spring to mind. But the dominant pattern nowadays is that the West African giants have to pursue the second rank of diaspora talent — the likes of Bryan Mbeumo, Inaki Williams, Joe Aribo, Nicolas Pepe — all excellent players, but not quite technically and tactically polished enough to represent France or England or Spain.

Sometimes that hierarchy of talent can be found in one family. Inaki Williams represented Ghana at this tournament, while his more promising brother Nico is representing Spain. Before they both were born, their Ghanaian parents trekked across the Sahara to reach Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, before settling in Pamplona.

Inaki, now 28, could conceivably have waited for a Spain call-up but rightly guessed that that ambition was unrealistic, and readily accepted Ghana’s approach this year. Nico is only 20, but has already accepted the Spain call, as part of Luis Enrique’s radical renewal project. This weird sibling schism is rare, but it has happened before. Jerome Boateng played for Germany while his brother Kevin-Prince played for Ghana, and Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara’s brother Rafinha was capped twice for Brazil.

It’s not only African countries that are boxing clever in the fight for diaspora talent: more than 130 players at these finals are representing countries they weren’t born in. The Australians have recruited savvily on foreign shores, the Qataris much less so.

The US national side excelled to pick up Sergino Dest, born in the Netherlands, and Valencia’s Yunus Musah, who was born in New York but grew up in Italy, and plays with all the vision and craft of a classic Italian regista. Timothy Weah was also born in New York, but his father is former AC Milan superstar George Weah and the current president of Liberia, a surreal illustration of the stretchiness of the entire concept of nationality in today’s football world.

Nationalism in football is harmless fun, but it’s even more fun for progressive onlookers when it attaches to teams that defy ethnic categories — teams that look like the world in one country. For example, Bukayo Saka is a walking, sparkling antidote to racist xenophobia in England.

But for African countries, the motive to defy nativist bigotry when selecting players is as strategic as it is progressive. Football is a global language, and we need fluent speakers, wherever they might crop up.

This is truer than ever for Bafana Bafana. As always, quality is the key variable, not nationality. We don’t really need another Pierre Issa, but we could always use another Hans Vonk.

Granted, we don’t have millions of football-mad cousins living in Europe, like the Moroccans do. But you never know when or where a distant superstar with South African blood might appear without warning. The big African lesson from this World Cup is simple: the diaspora is your friend.