This year’s Confederation of African Football (CAF) Africa Cup of Nations known by the acronym “AFCON” has the highest representation of diaspora players ever. It highlights a trend where African immigrants in Western countries are increasingly linked to the continent and Africa is better for it. For years, Africans have been moving to the West in search of opportunities. Their journeys are often not easy but their resilience is remarkable. Most Africans move to the West because they believe their kids will have more opportunities than they would in Africa. It is interesting to note that the opportunities they pursue also place them in a better position to support the continent of their ancestral origin.
Comoros leads the pack
No team encapsulates this trend more than the Comoros. Comoros has the highest proportion of diaspora players and their appearance at AFCON is in itself a miracle and a testament to the power of nurturing diaspora linkages. Out of the 28 players names for Comoros AFCON squad, 24 of them were born in France to immigrants from the Indian Ocean island. Comoros is ranked 132nd in FIFA world rankings, out of 210 countries. Qualification for AFCON was not a given for Comoros yet they assembled a contingent of players who have developed their skills in Europe thus enjoying superior facilities and training to maximize their talent.
Comoros is not alone in adding firepower to their squad by leveraging their diaspora in Western countries. Other countries including Equatorial Guinea, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal have a substantial number of foreign born players whose parents are African. In some cases, one of the parent is African and in other instances, both parents are African. What’s remarkable about the players is that they chose to represent the country of their parents’ origin.
The inclusion of diaspora players does not happen automatically, a number of factors contribute to this trend. Firstly, it is worth noting that many of the diaspora players included in AFCON squads are coming from countries with highly developed soccer youth development systems which serve as breeding ground for top flight players across Europe. A vast majority are coming from France, Spain, Netherlands and Germany. In these countries, soccer is a favorite sport for African immigrants stemming from the love of the game back at home and the inspiration of top African players such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o. African immigrants in these countries typically encourage and facilitate their kids to play competitive soccer from a young age. This creates a pipeline for up and coming future stars of the game.
Secondly, the influence of African immigrants on their kids plays and important part in enabling the connection to the motherland. Kids of African immigrants face an identity dilemma as they grow up and it usually takes arduous parenting to nurture pride of being African when one is born and raised in a Western country. Parents have to be intentional is helping their kids feel like they belong, these often means taking trips to Africa, building a support-base with other African immigrants to create a community and positively sharing the culture of their origin.
A fallback plan
It is not only the parents’ doing that creates the connection to Africa, kids have to want to be seen as African. In some cases, diaspora players chose to represent their parents’ country of origin so they can wear a national jersey and play at an international level such as AFCON or even the World Cup. Some players opt not to play for the country they were born in even though they are well qualified—but this is rare. Often, the diaspora players may not have made it to play for the national team in their country of birth so playing for their parents’ homeland becomes a fallback opportunity
African countries are also becoming better at scouting and recruiting talent across the diaspora. A scout for the national team will work with parents and officials in the football world to help talented kids who may want to play for the national team make the move. Often, it requires them to take the nationality of the African country and the paperwork involved can be arduous at times.
The inclusion of diaspora players is not without controversy, though. Critics see the trend as denying opportunities for local talent. Diaspora players tend to enjoy privileges that home-based players may not be offered and their talent may seem overvalued compared to local players simply because of the environment they’ve been nurtured in. In some cases, diaspora players struggle to fit in with team mates from their parents’ motherland if for example, they don’t speak the lingua franca of the country very well, or if they have limited exposure to the culture and social norms of the parents’ country of origin. Some may question the right that diaspora players have to represent their country if they have not spent considerable time there. Most fans however see it as a welcome strength, so long as the diaspora players are elevating the strength of the national team. If the national team wins, the diaspora players are heroes but if they don’t, the criticism piles on.
A growing trend
It will be interesting to see how the trend evolves over time. My sense is that we will see more diaspora players showing up for their parents’ country of origin. Once a country sees how other countries have a leg up on them, they will be keen to follow suit. But not all diaspora players are equal, diaspora players from countries with well-developed leagues and youth development programs will always have an edge. This means that African countries with large diaspora communities in countries that rank high on FIFA’s ranking will have an advantage. This will favor Franco-phone countries especially North African countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and West African countries such as Senegal and Ivory Coast. Countries with strong diaspora contingents in Great Britain such as Nigeria and Ghana also stand to benefit.
The trend shows that besides remittances, diaspora can contribute to Africa in many ways. They can enrich Africa through skills transfer and forging economic and socio-cultural linkages with Western countries, but they can also bring a wealth of talent in sports helping to raise the sports standards and global competitiveness of African countries.
Through migration, Africa has experienced significant brain drain. But it’s not just brain drain, we’ve also seen a growing trend in muscle-drain where top sports talent move from Africa to the West. As Africa develops and offers more opportunity and as the African diaspora communities in the West grow and get more established, we will likely see a trend in reverse muscle drain, much the same way we’ve seen a trend in reverse brain drain. Muscle–gain will help African countries elevate the standard of play and their ability to compete at a global level.
Lastly, tapping diaspora talent needs to be an intentional strategy and not just a coincidence. African countries need to see their diaspora as an extension of their country – an overseas province if you may. They need to recognize the value of the diaspora and include them more in development plans for their country. African countries need to recognize that dual citizenship offers an avenue to tap diaspora talent. African immigrant parents should be applauded for their role in helping their kids grow up being proud to be African. It is not an easy feat but it pays off and it gives kids unique opportunities to give back to the country where their parents came from. Most importantly, let us celebrate diaspora players and encourage the trend for the betterment of the continent.
Let us know
As usual, our goal here at Neo African diaspora is to engage African diaspora in the West and their stakeholders to join the conversation as we script our journey as immigrants. We would love to hear your views on how you see African diaspora (those who are born in Africa but moved and settled in the West as well as children of African immigrants in the West) influencing sports on the continent. We welcome you to share your views under comments or engage with us through social media.
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