FEATURE: A look at the European players who are declaring to play for African teams ahead of AFCON
With the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations fast approaching, many European born players from the African diaspora are switching allegiances to represent the homeland of their ancestors on the international stage. Here is a summary of the biggest names to commit to African national teams recently.
Jeremy Morel – Olympique Lyonnais – Madagascar
One of the biggest fairytale stories in international football as a whole in recent years is Madagascar reaching the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in their history. As an island which is more known for lemurs, vanilla, and a blockbuster movie series, Madagascar has never been known for their contribution to the footballing world. Even in their local competition, the Indian Ocean Island Games, the football is dominated by Reunion, Seychelles, and Mauritius with Madagascar failing to win the competition since 1990. However, recent years have seen an upturn in fortunes with a few French born players choosing to play for Madagascar such as Ilaimaharitra (Charleroi) and Metanire (Stade de Reims) which has created something of a golden generation leading to them qualifying for AFCON in a group with Senegal, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea.
Almost just as big of a surprise is that Lyon defender Jeremy Morel announced that he has made himself available for the Madagascar national team. It was a particular surprise as it was almost unknown that Morel was even eligible for Madagascar, with even the national team manager being unaware of his eligibility until Morel himself contacted the federation. While he is not a superstar by any means, Morel is a defender with Champions League experience and has been playing in the top flight of French football since 2006. While he has played a lot as a left back in the past, as he has grown older he has become more of a ball playing centre back. Some in France have questioned his defensive ability and particularly his height to be playing as a regular centre back, however, he will add a wealth of experience that could prove invaluable for a team with no tournament experience such as Madagascar.
Noussair Mazraoui – Ajax – Morocco
After winning AFCON with both the perennial underachievers Ivory Coast and the underdogs of Zambia, Herve Renard is no stranger to the competition. As such, and with arguably the best squad in Africa, Morocco are among the favorites to win the competition. On paper, their defence has very little weakness as it boasts big names such as Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Achraf Hakimi (Borussia Dortmund, on loan from Real Madrid) and Zouhair Feddal (Real Betis), however, they have added another promising talent to their ranks with Ajax’s young right back Mazraoui.
Mazraoui’s main attributes are cerebral. As he initially started out as a central midfielder, he was unable to match up to the technical quality of the likes of Frenkie De Jong and Lasse Schone and so was shoehorned in at right back by Erik ten Hag. The decision has proved to work immensely well, with Mazraoui offering a role in which he can tuck into the midfield when in possession which allows Ajax to outnumber the opposition in midfield and dominate the ball, following their philosophy dating back to the days of Michels and Cruyff. Defensively, Mazraoui is generally positioned well however possibly his biggest weakness is that he needs to bulk up physically and be less apprehensive going into tackles. Nonetheless, it appears that Morocco have their long term successor to Nabil Dirar with their depth at full back reaching an all time high.
Diawara is an interesting case as he has always been Guinean and was born in Conakry, however as he moved to Italy while still a child there were talks that he would opt to represent the Azzurri at international level. However, due to a mix of administrative issues and his personal patriotism, the 21 year old has finally set his sights on glory with Guinea’s national team. The National Elephants have qualified for AFCON with a game to spare, and have done so ahead of continental giants Ivory Coast.
As a player, Diawara is categorized as a regista. This makes his primary role to recycle possession, create chances from deep in the pitch, control the tempo of a match and break the lines with splitting passes. Unlike classic exponents of the regista role such as Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Busquets, Diawara is also superb physically and can use his speed and physical strength as defensive tools to double up as a more traditional holding midfielder. As an example of Diawara at his best, his magnum opus of his young career is Napoli’s away game at the Bernabeu where, despite Napoli losing 3-1, Diawara bossed the generational midfield of Kroos, Casemiro and Modric.
Saido Berahino – Stoke City – Burundi
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Burundi was in the midst of a civil war. As is the case with any war, the one in Burundi claimed a number of lives including the father of Saido Berahino. As a result, in 2003 Berahino and his family took refuge in the quieter surroundings of the English Midlands, where he would soon be scouted by West Bromwich Albion. It transpired that Berahino would be something of a prodigy, earning his place in England’s youth teams at every age level from U16 to U21. However, despite being one of the most promising players in the country with a prolific goalscoring rate for his age, Berahino’s career fell apart due to a dispute with West Brom’s owner due to a potential transfer to Tottenham Hotspur breaking down.
Now at Stoke, Berahino made headlines for the wrong reasons as he failed to score a single goal for over 900 days. This season, now in the Championship, Berahino has found his goalscoring touch again and it coincides with him switching allegiances to represent the country of his birth, Burundi. While Fiston Abdul Razack has scored the bulk of their goals, Berahino contributed with a crucial goal away at Gabon in a 1-1 draw which now leaves The Swallows needing to avoid defeat in the return leg to qualify for AFCON. As a player, Berahino is generally a poacher who has a similar style to that of Mauro Icardi or Jermain Defoe. Even during his two goalless seasons, Berahino average 0.29 expected goals per 90 minutes, showing that while he lacked the finishing touches he always had good positioning in the box.
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