Kalidou Koulibaly, Alex Iwobi, Hakim Ziyech, Saido Berahino, Andy Delort… what do these AFCON players, and dozens of others, have in common? Each holds two (or more) nationalities, and some of them played for another country at youth levels than the one they now represent. Dual nationals are an important stake for international football, one of the few moving pieces on a checkerboard mostly controlled by the determinism of citizenship.
Get French Football News’ own AFCON consultant, Yacouba Sylla, is French of Malian origin. He made one appearance as a U21 France international, replacing Antoine Griezmann in a match against Spain in 2011, before joining the Mali national team in 2013. After the first round of matches, Sylla discusses the experiences and motivations of these footballers forced to arbitrate in favor of one branch of their identity.
Hello Yacouba. What are your first impressions of this year’s AFCON?
My first impression is that I’m not surprised. Even by Uganda, who beat the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda as a team is showing good continuity in what it is doing. Today they are achieving something big, having beaten DRC. I played against Uganda in the last AFCON. It was 1-1. They are a team with a philosophy, with continuity in their choice of players. The players know each other. For the rest of the matches, the traditional hierarchy was respected, but some big teams struggled to enter the competition well, maybe because of the pressure and the fact of entering a big competition like AFCON.
Are you thinking of Ghana (drew with Benin 2-2), Tunisia (drew with Angola)?
Not necessarily just them. Benin have not made appearances in final tournaments these last few years, but they are a strong team. I’ve played against them six times, I think, and it’s a solid team building well. In the context of the match, a draw is deserved for both teams, especially with the red card (For Ghana player John Boye). For Egypt or Nigeria also, it was difficult and the margin was thin but they won three points, regardless of the manner.
Did Mali select two players called Adama Traoré just to confuse the other team’s defence?
(Laughs). There are a lot of Traorés in Mali… Believe me, the fact that they both scored is good news for Mali. They are good players and good people. We couldn’t dream of better for Mali to start like this. Though, from what I have seen, the opponents Mauritania were probably the weakest in the competition.
Their centre-back Abdul Ba drew attention (2.03m tall).
We’re familiar with him, he’s played for Lens, Auxerre, he is a usual face in France. For me, Mauritania lacks homogeneity though, some players don’t have clubs, others play in strange leagues. In qualification matches, it’s hard to play them away, they handle it well.
But on equal footing on a good pitch, in good conditions, it’s a different story and we saw the power of Mali’s team. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Mauritania are only participating for the first time and they probably didn’t show their best face. Mali was able to kill the match in the second half.
Let’s talk about dual national players. To start with, do they add a strength to national teams?
Yes, it is a strength to have players with experience of other leagues and having access to dual nationals broadens the possibilities for national teams: they can call on players born outside the country. For dual nationals, it is an opportunity to defend the colours of their country of origin and maintain links to this country.
Some people say this system might advantage big nations, who grow the extent of their national pools further still. But small countries also benefit, correct?
I think it goes both ways. But there are not just dual nationals to look for. Some players are born in the country and are better than dual nationals. For example, Mbwana Samatta (Tanzania’s captain), who is the highest scorer in the Belgian league, has success abroad but he is a home-grown Tanzanian. For me there is no difference in terms of quality, on the pitch you put the best players regardless of where they are from.
In the past, we have heard of clans forming inside squads between home-grown or dual citizens. Has this changed?
Everything depends on the personality of the players, on the coach as well: he makes the rules, he is the ship’s captain. If the coach shows that he is more interested in dual-nationals or in home-grown players, it will create problems. But if he is honest, there will be no problems. The players need to see that he is objective, aligning the best team. Origin or birthplace doesn’t matter.
You have the same nationality as your colleagues, there is no difference on this level. The only problem that can exist is when some dual nationals don’t speak the language of the country they play for. Sometimes affinities are created through linguistic or cultural links, which can create groups. But it is a collective sport, everyone needs to pull the same way.
What role does social media play in allowing players to stay in touch, and not just be in contact during international breaks?
That’s right, it has caused change. Previously, you would come spend 10 days with the group whenever there was a match, and not see them again for 3 months, with little contact. Now everyone is equipped with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. WhatsApp has become a major media for communication, like phoning. Those who like each other, have things in common, stay in touch and create affinities. It used to just be about playing the games together, it was cordial relations, social media has allowed for more proximity.
Many players, like yourself, played for one country in youth teams before playing for another at the senior level. How did you live this change, this comparison?
It’s night and day. In my case, I played for France U21s because my career brought me through that step. But my dream was always to play for Mali. I admired the generation of Seydou Keïta, Mahamadou Diarra, Frédéric Omar Kanouté, Adama Tamboura, and others. I had only one wish: to join them, because their team excited me. I was a patriot. When I joined them, it was just logical for me. At the time, I was in Premier League (Aston Villa), I could have hoped to play for France because I was one of few in my generation to play in the Premier League at that moment. It was a possibility, but I have no regrets, I had made my choice long ago and when the national team coach called me up, I jumped on the chance.
For some it must be a difficult choice.
Yes, I understand for some it is. Nowadays, with social media, nothing goes unnoticed. All these players have to make a choice, and there are many factors to take into consideration. Some countries are stronger than others, others are building or are messed up. I understand that you want to focus on your career before choosing a national team, because it can be a burden: you have to perform. You need to balance that and your career. Some players are also fragile physically, and don’t feel ready to represent their countries colors. Some need time.
What sacrifices are involved?
You realise that you may have to play for a national team where the conditions won’t be as good as in your club. Some players are less developed mentally and can crack under pressure. Others have an iron mental strength and are looking for an objective. If we look at Jérémy Morel, he clearly has joined Madagascar with an ambition: he is looking for a human adventure. Some are looking for a sporting challenge, others to connect to their roots. Each has his own reasons. But you have to want it, or you won’t get it.
In the case of Morel, or that of Andy Delort (who obtained Algerian nationality and was called up at the last minute), is it opportunistic to make that decision?
I won’t say that. It’s up to local football associations and coaches to decide if they think the players are opportunistic. But before that, there are talks with the player, to judge his level of motivation. For Morel, I highly doubt that he is an opportunistic guy. Seeing his career, he had nothing to win sportingly or financially by taking part in this. He is looking for his identity, alongside the Malagasy team.
For Delort, it happened very fast. Personally, I didn’t follow the story closely but I’m happy for him, that he will discover the African continent and the competition. I think it will be a great adventure for him, football-wise. I won’t speak about how strong his ties to Algeria are because I don’t really know. I hope that for these players the adventure continues, and they are not just there by curiosity or for status.
We speak a lot of those players, but less of the public. There is a dual national public too: people who follow both an African country and France, for example.
Yes of course. For those born in France, they are happy when France wins but also when the countries of their origin wins. They go there on holiday; they have uncles and aunts and family born there. There are strong links for the country of origin. You can’t take that away, having two origins. You must enjoy it.
There are also dual nationals, born within Africa, like Sessi d’Almeida who plays for Benin but is also Ivorian.
Yes, and they don’t get as much attention because, because they are 100% African. There are difficult choices for them too: There are many Senegalese-Mauritanian people, or Malian-Ivorian, and other combinations. There is pressure to make the right choice. In the end, if you win, it doesn’t matter.
Even in France it works like this: when they lose, some people go as far a saying “There are too many Africans”. But even if you win, some will say it’s an African team. But they are as French as anyone else. You have to love your country to fight for it and play like that. Believe me, people play with their hearts. Footballers are only judged by their results. In some countries, it’s hard in some countries like in Italy to play if you have foreign origins, but in France, Switzerland, Portugal… a lot of players are descendants of immigrants.