FEATURE: The Africans that got away
While many Africans chose to represent their country of birth, others have chosen to represent countries off the continent.
With the first international break of the season underway, Africa Football Shop picks ten players and assesses which of those have gone on to success and those who would have been better off in Africa.
10) Nedum Onuoha
Nedum Onuoha was born in Nigeria but soon found himself representing England at Under-21 level. The defender made his England youth team debut in October 2005, making the squad for the 2007 Under-21 European Championships.
Onuoha established himself as a regular with the youth side, also going on to captain the team. However, at 28-years-old, Onuoha is still awaiting a senior cap for the Three Lions.
He also turned down approaches from the Super Eagles to represent them at senior level. Once the former Manchester City defender realised his chances of playing at Wembley were limited, he made it clear he would love to feature for Nigeria at a World Cup…. however, the Super Eagles have not come calling since.
Verdict: Onuoha ultimately chose the option to represent a bigger footballing nation, but that opportunity never came. His international career could have been much different had he chosen to represent his country of birth. Loyalty would have seemingly counted.
9) George Boateng
George Boateng became a defensive-midfielder for the Netherlands, making his senior debut in 2001, in a friendly against Denmark.
Having been born in Ghana, and going on to make four caps, it would be believed Boateng would have perhaps have gained more opportunities at international level back in Africa.
Verdict: Boateng is yet another example of someone who perhaps felt their chances of international success laid with their adopted nation, however, the chance to play at international level would have been in representing his country of birth.
8) Jores Okore
Jores Okore was born in Ivory Coast before moving to Denmark aged three, going on to start playing football aged eight.
At 22-years-old the centre-back is still young, but made his Under-21 debut for Denmark in 2011 participating at the Under-21 European Championships in a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland.
Okore quickly moved onto the senior team, as two months later he made his debut, replacing Simon Kjaer in a friendly against Sweden. The Ivorian then went on to make his first start against Finland, before being called up to the Denmark squad for Euro 2012.
Verdict: Okore has experienced arguably the best continental tournament in the world, while he may have had more chance winning one with Ghana. It’s a split verdict on this one, as while someone would rather glory, others would rather quality of the European Champonships. But he is still young and has the chance to add to his international experiences, with many years ahead of him.
7) Alexander Tettey
Alexander Tettey was born and raised in Ghana, before moving to Norway in 1999.
That was when the 29-year-old switched allegiance to his new European home, Norway, instead of representing the African powerhouse Ghana.
The defensive-midfielder has played for Norway’s Under-18, 19 and 21 sides, plus the senior team.
Verdict: With Ghana’s large status in African football, it seems hard to understand why any player would chose not to represent their country of birth, unless it was for one of the world’s top 10 international sides. Therefore it seems like Tettey could have profited elsewhere, seeing as his record doesn’t have too much to boast on the international stage. Who knows, maybe he could have even inspired the Black Stars to win this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final victory?
6) Steve Mandanda
The DR Congo-born France goalkeeper became nicknamed ‘Frenchie’ by his relatives, for choosing to represent Les Blues. However, the 30-year-old ‘keeper has gained valuable experiences he was unlikely to have with Congo.
Steve Mandanda made his way from France Under-21, including the European Championships, up into the France B side, where he came up against his native DR Congo in February 2008. Later that year, he made his full debut in a warm-up friendly against Ecuador ahead of Euro 2008, going on to win 2-0. Mandanda was named third-choice ‘keeper for the tournament.
However, he wasn’t third choice for too long as he was selected first for France’s 2010 World Cup qualifiers, making his first competitive appearance against Austria in the same year as making the Euro squad.
But the fairytale didn’t last long, as Hugo Lloris replaced him as number one in 2009, falling to second choice for the World Cup in South Africa, making no appearances in the tournament. Four years later and Mandanda continued to be considered for his adopted country, travelling to Brazil for the World Cup.
Verdict: It’s always tough choosing to represent a nation, other than you’re one of birth, especially if chances are limited. However, for Mandanda, despite not always being first choice, he has racked up plenty of international experience, and travelled to two World Cups. Not an experience he would have received with DR Congo.
5) Christian Benteke
Yet another DR Congo-born footballer, 24-year-old striker Christian Benteke has become a regular for Belgium and still has the prime of his international career ahead of him, with the European championships just next summer.
In 2007 he made his first appearance for Belgium with the Under-17s, before progressing through the age groups, until he made his senior debut in 2010. However, despite being a striker, it took him two years to find the back of the net on the senior international stage, scoring in a 4-2 thumping of the Netherlands.
From that point, Benteke has never looked back. The Liverpool striker scored twice in seven appearances, during qualification for the 2014 World Cup, however, he missed the plane to Brazil after rupturing an achilles tendon. He was tipped to be a star in the tournament, after having a fine season for Aston Villa in the Premier League.
It took until Euro 2016 qualification before Benteke scored again, in a 5-0 thumping of Cyprus.
Verdict: Benteke certainly made the right decision to represent Belgium, with injury the only thing holding him back from potentially being a key player for his country at last summer’s World Cup. Luckily, still young and hungry, with a new career at Anfield, Benteke will unquestionably be a part of Belgium’s squad for the Euros next summer and World Cups to come.
4) Saido Berahino
The 21-year-old Burundi-born striker, Saido Berahino, has been one of England’s most recent success stories, lighting up the Premier League at such a young age.
To date he is yet to make a senior Three Lions appearance, despite being a part of the senior squad for a European qualification fixture back in November. However, he has been a great success with the Under-21s.
Berahino was quoted as saying: “Burundi is motherland to me. I will always be a Burundian regardless of what happens, even if I become a successful Premier League player.
“I will still have the Burundi culture in me. Playing for England is totally different. They have given me a second chance in life, provided my family with a different type of lifestyle.
“I feel very, very grateful to what England have done for me and my family. So, when I play for England, I play with passion and excitement, joy and desire to win.”
Berahino represented England Under-17 at the European Championships, as the Young Lions went on to win the tournament in Lichtenstein. The striker scored the equaliser in England’s final group game against Turkey.
He looked like achieving similar heights with the Under-19s, only to fall out of the Euros at the semi-final stage against Greece. But by August 2013 he was called into the Under-21s where he was really beginning to get noticed for his talents.
Berahino was voted the 2014 Under-21 Player of the Year, and is the third-top scoring Under-21 player, behind Francis Jeffers and Alan Shearer, scoring 10 goals in 13 appearances.
Unfortunately, his only set back was not making the Under-21 European Championships this year, through injury.
The 21-year-old pushed back offers to represent Burundi and England are confident that Berahino can be a great success for the country.
Verdict: Berahino is continuing to get better as each month passes and his goalscoring doesn’t look like drying up any time soon. He has proven he is good enough through the records he has broken already, and making the senior side at 21 isn’t done easily. Hopefully in 10 years time Berahino will look back at the decision as a great one, with fond memories. Can he finally guide England to some much-needed silverware?
Born in Cape Verde, the 28-year-old Portugal winger will be believing he made a wise decision to switch allegiance.
Playing alongside arguably the best player in the world is what any player would dream of, and to then establish yourself as a regular senior player for the country is even better.
Nani’s family emigrated to Portugal at an early age for the winger, beginning his Under-21 career as the youngest member of the squad for the Under-21 European Championships in 2006. He made an appearance in all three of their games, before the team was knocked out of the tournament.
But the Cape Verdean was not to wait long for his senior debut, as later the same year he scored on his debut in a 4-2 defeat to Denmark. Nani was selected for Euro 2008, making three appearances, one of those as a start.
However, injury prevented him from travelling to South Africa for the World Cup in 2010, but did make the 2014 edition of the tournament, starting their opening fixture in Brazil and scoring in their second game, a 2-2 draw with the United States.
Verdict: Nani is another talent from Africa that has been lured away from the continent and to the player’s credit, has gone on to play with and against the best players on the biggest stage of them all. It has been clear for some time that Nani was going to be good enough, and you could not deny the player the chance to play for Portugal when it came about.
2) Patrice Evra
Born in Senegal to a Cape Verdean mother and Guinean father, 34-year-old Patrice Evra could have represented a number of African nations, besides France, who he eventually selected.
Having moved to Belgium at 12 months old and onto France at three, Evra accused his native Senegal of abusing him because he chose against his African routes for the European giants.
Having spent most of his life in France, it’s fair to say Evra had every right to chose the Europeans, and after boasting many caps for Les Blues, he can be smug that he done right by himself.
However, he didn’t just breeze into the senior side, having started out with the Under-21s, as he was eliminated from France’s Euro 2004 side, when the squad was reduced to 23 players.
Evra returned for World Cup 2006 qualifiers, starting the first two games, but as the World Cup came around, once again Evra was snubbed.
It was when Manchester United took the left-back onboard that his international career really hit new heights, as he featured regularly for the country from 2007 and was included in the Euro 2008 squad.
Having played in 10 of 12 qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, he captained his country for the first time in May 2010 and went onto captain his side at the World Cup, being selected ahead of France legend Thierry Henry.
After a disaster World Cup where France exited at the group stages, Evra was banned for five games in his part in in-squad disagreements out in South Africa, and returned to international duty in 2011.
Having made the Euro 2012 squad, he also went on to represent France at the 2014 World Cup, playing four of the five matches, as France went out in the quarter-finals.
Verdict: It wasn’t the smoothest ride to the top for Evra, but arguments aside, he has played in the biggest international tournaments, alongside a strong squad of players. It’s fair to say Evra wouldn’t have achieved this for either of the three African nations he could have represented.
1) Patrick Vieira
The 39-year-old former France midfielder was born in Senegal, before moving to France at eight and didn’t return to the country until 2003.
Things could have been a whole lot different for France had Patrick Vieira’s stay in France have been brief, as he could also have qualified for Cape Verde through his mother.
Vieira made his debut in 1997 against the Netherlands, becoming a part of the 1998 World Cup-winning squad and came on as a substitute against Brazil in the final. His international bow was sealed with a World Cup winners’ medal.
But his international dream didn’t stop there, becoming a regular for Les Blues and helping France beat local rivals Italy in the Euro 2000 final, to add to his accolades. Vieira was then able to tick off the Confederations Cup off his list, winning the final against Japan in 2001, and if that was not enough, he also finished the tournament as joint-top scorer.
On a slightly damper feel to his glorious international career, Vieira featured in every game for France at the World Cup in 2002, as Les Blues were eliminated at the group stages, having failed to score all tournament.
Vieira temporarily acquired the captain’s armband, until France legend Zinedine Zidane was tempted out of retirement to resurrect France’s 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign. Vieira played in all of France’s games at the tournament, but was subbed in the final through injury as Italy won on penalties.
The, by now, experienced midfielder acquired the captain’s armband once again for Euro 2008 qualification, but played no part in the tournament due to a niggling knee injury. His final appearance for France was in a friendly against Nigeria in 2009, having being dismissed from France’s 2010 World Cup plans. Vieira won a total of 107 caps and scored six goals during his international career.
Verdict: Some things don’t need an explanation, and this is one of them. To win a World Cup in your first tournament, a European Championship in the next, plus another international honour the following year is an unbelievable achievement for any player. He went on to be a key midfielder for France and was unlucky to not add a second World Cup to his name, before becoming captain. Senegal would not have been able to offer the experiences and opportunities to win such accolades that France could and would have been totally unjust, for a player of his calibre, to not have achieved such success in the game.
That concludes the Africans who chose to switch allegiance, some benefitted from the switch, some didn’t and for one man in particular, he may look back on that as the best decision throughout his glamorous career.