Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
Europe plunders African footballers.
Colonialists are often accused of ransacking their African colonies and voraciously depleting them of all mineral wealth. It is an indictment met with vehement denials from the likes of Britain, France and Portugal. Yet these colonial masters should count themselves fortunate they aren’t accused of a sin far worse – plundering Africa’s finest football gems. That would be a charge hard for them to refute.
Perhaps the most sparkling pearl Europe ever looted from these shores was Eusébio. Mentioned regularly among the finest purveyors of the Beautiful Game, Eusébio was plundered from Mozambique by colonial masters Portugal in 1960. He had been born in Maputo in 1942, but as soon as Eusébio’s bewitching skills came to the attention of the Portuguese powers-that-be, it was time for him to be transplanted. The prodigy had no choice in the matter.
As per the harsh colonial laws in place then, Eusébio wasn’t regarded as Mozambican and he never held a Mozambican passport. All residents of Mozambique were, at that time, denied their rights of heritage and had Portuguese citizenship foisted upon them as soon as they were born.
In fact, the city Eusébio left behind then wasn’t Maputo, it was called Lourenco Marques, the capital of the Overseas Province of Portugal. All inhabitants of the province were deemed to have sworn allegiance to the republic of Portugal and all were eligible to serve in Portugal’s army. Every official document had the word Portugal next to the question about nationality. Needless to say, it was considered high treason for one to refer to oneself as Mozambican. Portugal had put such colonial rules in effect as soon as the natives started agitating for independence.
Eusébio left for Portugal at 18; his air-ticket to Lisbon was the most lucrative investment Portugal had ever made. But memories of the flight away from his motherland still haunt him decades later.
Talking to the press before a humanitarian trip back to Mozambique in 2006, Eusébio confided that: “Whenever I fly back, I get very tense. I’m in the air all night, and I remember that this journey goes the other way to the one I took at 18. I was leaving home then. You don’t forget those feelings, even when you are 64”.
Four years after he was relocated, the armed guerrilla forces of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) turned their compatriots’ desire for self-determination into a vicious war of independence. By this time, Eusébio was already a national hero and on an inexorable path towards immortality.
The Black Panther, as he became fondly known, had joined the Portuguese national team within a year of his arrival and won the European cup with Benfica the next. As Mozambique attained its independence, Eusébio was being crowned the European Footballer of the Year. A year after Mozambique came into existence, his compatriots were forced to watch as Eusébio’s jet-propelled heels fuelled Portugal to the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup.
So cherished was Eusébio that when European clubs flooded Benfica with offers for his signature, it became a matter of national pride. Then Portuguese dictator, Oliveira Salazar, swiftly declared him a national treasure forbidden from being sold outside Portugal.
Eusébio famously broke down the first time he returned to Mozambique. As he confessed back then, Portugal might be his physical home, but Mozambique remains his heart home.
“Portuguese is what I am, but Mozambican is who I am.”
Portugal and other colonial powers might have used colonialism to smuggle Africa’s greatest talent, but the end of colonialism didn’t signal an end to the practice. As incontrovertible evidence at the 2010 World Cup proves, the end of the colonial era just made European powers adopt new, more politically correct ways to do it.
The 2010 World Cup showcases players who would otherwise be playing for African teams, representing European ones after being lured to change their national loyalties.
While Eusébio and his ilk had no option in the matter, modern-day African players who choose to represent European sides have been induced by other means. In the 1990s, when European clubs could only field a restricted number of non-EU footballers, it became considered a good career move for players with African roots to attain European citizenship. The passports attained thereafter made them infinitely more attractive to European suitors than their non-EU counterparts.
Of course, passport or no passport, choosing to represent a European nation over an African one is a prudent decision in itself. Zinedine Zidane chose France over Algeria. It’s doubtful whether Zidane would have scaled such heights had he remained faithful to his North African roots instead.
France, with its multitude of resources and unhindered by the logistical and administrative nightmares in Africa, is a far surer launch pad into footballing immortality than Algeria. Come to think of it, had Zidane chosen Algeria, he never would have exhibited his skills at a World Cup stage that came to so define his legacy.
Inversely, the same argument can be applied to the case of George Weah. Weah made his name in France with Monaco before living up to his promise by moving to Milan. Yet, despite winning trophies and becoming the African, European and FIFA Player of the Year accolades, Weah paid dearly for rebuffing any French attempts to lure him. The World Cup, the biggest stage of all, never witnessed his exceptional talents and the Liberian’s legacy shall forever be diminished for it.
Such reasons make it clear why European countries still find it easy to lure African talent despite the cessation of colonialism. Gone is the imperial muscle Portugal, France et al used in the past, it is now replaced by the modern-day bait of sheer economic might.
A cursory look at the teams gathered in South Africa convicts France as the most shameless among guilty parties. Europe’s representatives in Group A, France, can easily pass for an African team as well. It certainly has almost as many native Africans as South Africa, the official continental emissary in that group.
Les Bleus’ defence alone will feature two African-made talents. The right-back Bacary Sagna was born to Senegalese immigrants in France.
He could and should have played for the nation of his descent. In 2002, after Senegal qualified for the World Cup, Sagna’s dad dispatched letters to Bruno Metsu and the Senegalese FA asking them to call up his son, then a reserve at Auxerre. Sagna Senoir’s letters went unheeded till three years later when his son made his League One debut.
A desperate Senegal phoned the Sagna household to summon him, but it was too late. By then, French under-21 coach, Rene Girard, had already convinced Sagna’s dad, through daily calls, that his son would be better off representing his adopted country.
Sagna’s cousin, Ibrahima Sonko, represents Senegal and Sagna admits that his contrasting decision caused some consternation in West Africa.
“Now I get criticized,” Sagna admits. “When I go back to Senegal, loads of kids always surround me and ask why I chose France. But I am a big lad now. I can take it.”
While Sagna patrols France’s right flank, another son of the soil will be manning the opposite end. Patrice Evra, the left back, was born to a Senegalese father and a Cape Verdean mother. Unlike Sagna, France’s captain was born and bred in Senegal’s capital Dakar before relocating to France.
“I grew up amid a Senegalese culture at home,” Evra once revealed. “But my father was a diplomat and we became westernized very quickly.”
About his decision to represent France, he recalled. “I had an offer to play for Senegal. But my father told me to follow my heart. I chose France.”
That decision wasn’t well-received back home.
“I came in for lots of abuse in Senegal. I was labelled a money-obsessed traitor to the nation.”
Senegal and other African nations have, of course, always harboured deep reservations about what they perceive as an institutionalized French policy of plundering African football talent. That’s partly why Senegal’s stunning 1-0 win over France in the 2002 World Cup opener was so wildly celebrated. It was interpreted as an act of defiance and a slap across the face of a superior and callous imperialist.
Sagna and Evra aside, France’s team in South Africa is littered with other African exports. Second-choice goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was born in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2008, Mandanda in fact played for his adopted nation against that of his birth. What made the entire affair such an international farce, however, was the fact that Mandanda’s younger brother, Parfait kept goal on the opposite end, for DR Congo. Perhaps rightly, both brothers kept clean-sheets in the 0-0 draw. The elder Mandanda’s decision to play for France rather predictably earned him the dubious nickname “Frenchie” among his relatives.
There are many more among Raymond Domenech’s ranks that possess African roots. Alou Diarra hails from Senegal; Abou Diaby and Djibril Cissé have Ivorian roots; Sidney Govou is from Benin while Algerian blood courses through Andre-Pierre Gignac’s veins.
Gignac is a reserve forward and it’s doubtful he will leave the same imprint as Les Bleus’ last Algerian import. Zinedine Zidane inspired France’s most dominant spell atop global football; one only shattered by that Senegal defeat eight years back.
Acting as Zidane’s partners-in-crime back then were Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makélelé, whose birth certificates were all issued in Africa.
Desailly was born Abbey Odenke in Ghana. He, however, changed his name when his mother married the head of the French Consulate in Accra. Desailly and his siblings were all adopted before the family relocated to France, with the future defender was a four-year-old.
Vieira, on the other hand, was born in Senegal to Cape Verdean parents.
Makélelé, whose given name means “noise” in Lingala, is a native of Kinshasa whose father even represented the DR Congo.
Les Bleus’ reliance on the African conveyor belt of easy-to-pillage talent only came to the world’s attention after their 1998 World Cup triumph. But, vigilant connoisseurs of the Beautiful Game know the French have been at it for quite some time now.
From the great Just Fontaine (Morocco) through to Jean Tigana (Mali) to Basile Boli (Ivory Coast), Les Blues are repeat offenders when it comes to this particular offence. Not that France is the only 2010 World Cup finalist guilty of such blatant player plunder. Portugal will be determined to emulate Eusébio’s heroics in South Africa. And to this end, the Selecção will be coached by Carlos Queiroz, a man born in Mozambique.
Queiroz will only have one player of African descent in his squad in right-back Miguel, whose parents are from Cape Verde. Miguel should have been joined by Nani and Jose Bosingwa, (both born in Cape Verde and DR Congo respectively) but for ill-timed injuries.
That Portugal and France have benefited from African talent where the other colonial master Britain hasn’t, is all down to the divergent colonialist policies the latter pursued.
The French pursued an assimilation policy, where colonial citizens were treated as full-fledged French citizens. One survey in fact discovered that there were 147 African footballers participating in the French first and second divisions in 1938.
France’s assimilation ideology meant that the French weren’t reluctant to take players from the colonies on their national team, as in the case of Larbi Ben Barek from Morocco who represented France in the 30’s and 40’s.
As a result of that assimilation policy, France even kept a close association with its colonies post-independence. A variant of that self-same ideology persists in modern France where immigrants from the former French empire are considered officially French regardless of race or ethnicity. In razor-sharp contrast, Britain pursued no such ideals during colonialism. The British had a relatively hands-off approach that tended to favour indirect rule. This inclination towards separation rather than assimilation is perhaps why Britain didn’t betray as naked an inclination as France’s to rely on colonial citizens or their descendants for football glory.
Modern trends, though, dictate that it is not just colonialists reaping African talent these days. Germany never colonized Ghana, but Coach Joachim Löw arrived in South Africa with Ghanaian Jérôme Boateng in tow. Born to a Ghanaian father who immigrated to Germany in 1980, Jérôme has a half-brother called Kevin-Prince who decided to represent his country of descent. In a bizarre twist of fate, Germany and Ghana were drawn against each other in Group D.
That ironic wit by the fixture computer ensures that two brothers are scheduled to lock horns when the two rivals face off in the last match of their group in a high-profile replay of that farcical Mandanda brothers’ episode.
To Africans still bitter over the exploitation under European imperialism, it will provide further evidence that years after the colonial era, Africa has yet to stop the plunder of its best gems by the West.