By Sam Crocker
Nabil Fekir’s decision over which national team shirt to wear has been the saga that nobody wanted. Subject of an intercontinental tug-of-war, the 21-year-old finds himself in a very unique situation, managing to find a niche area in the modern footballing relationship between France and Algeria. However, in many ways it goes beyond just France and Algeria; a rare example of an African country not being limited to simply sweeping up the leftovers, able to put in a bid for the top talents that are eligible both sides of the Mediterranean – but still ultimately losing out.
Its not difficult to see why Fekir is so in demand. 11 goals and seven assists in Ligue 1 this season has seen his club Lyon elevate to heights not reached since 2008, during the league winning season of 2007-08, when the L’OL dynasty came to an end. A sublime all-round game, both able to create and score goals, he is part of the new crop of talent coming through at the club bidding for domestic glory. And it has not gone unnoticed by the countries he is able to represent, with the two passports he possesses creating quite the storm.
Whilst his talent is sublime, his decision-making is less so. Making a real hash out of the choice between Algeria and France, reportedly telling both sides at various points that he would play for them, the tug-of-war between the two became more and more desperate in the hope of claiming this rising star. However, it is the North Africans who have been left collapsed in the dirt, as the lure of European football was ultimately too strong for Fekir to choose the country of his parents.
Born in Lyon to Algerian parents, the forward’s decision to choose France has not been met positively in Algeria. According to reports, Fekir’s social media sites are littered with the word “harki” – a word in the Algerian dialect referring to an Algerian who fought with the French during the war, the battles of which were some of the most brutal to occur in Africa during the decolonisation period.
This anger stems from the story that Fekir had spoken to Algeria manager Christian Gourcuff about representing the country of his parents, and was to be included in the squad for the friendlies at the end of March against Oman and Qatar.
“Nabil Fekir called me to tell me of his decision to wear the Algeria shirt,” explained Gourcuff on the matter.
“Three hours after his first call, he called me to say he had changed his mind. But I wish Nabil the best for his career and I consider the matter closed.”
President of the Algerian FA blamed his club Lyon for this apparent U-turn, but Fekir has admitted that it was a conversation with France coach Didier Deschamps that convinced him of the ultimate decision. Whoever the main influence was, it is a situation that has rarely been seen before in the arena of African diaspora in Europe.
In terms of the Algerian national team, the large percentage of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations squad that were born in France tells you all you need to know, with 16 of the 23 born in lands of their former colonial overlords. Whilst the notion of dual-nationality is nothing new, dual-nationality becoming an issue is relatively rare in this case, with a player rarely receiving tangible interest from both sides.
Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri are all examples of players who chose France over Algeria, but the fact they never really considered Algeria at any great length means their decision is relatively well received. The selection of French-born Algerians is normally a process of sweeping up the leftovers for Les Fennecs, selecting the young players who know they are unlikely to be good enough to play for France, or the older players who have given up on a France call-up. Indeed, these patterns play out across Africa generally, with Cameroon another example of this – with 21-year-old Clinton N’Jie coming into the setup recently and Charles Itandje getting a run of games after his France hopes dissipated.
It’s difficult to blame these players for wanting to represent their European nations. It is not just the glitz and the glamour of playing at a higher level with better players, but the affinity through which you feel attached to a country. When born and growing up in a country, the bond you have with it is one that is difficult to relinquish, with the fact you possess the passport of said country just a representation of this. The nature of diaspora is that people feel affinity with more than one nation, and whilst Fekir’s indecision elevated this to debate to the front pages of the French media, it is something that football has struggled to comprehend.
Indeed, football seems to find the notion of multiple nationality absolutely baffling. The fascination with Adnan Januzaj last season a case in point, with his complex Kosovan/Albanian/Belgian heritage causing all sorts of media speculation, as well as the ridiculous notion that he might play for England. Even the national team future of young Arsenal midfielder Gedion Zelalem received unprecedented levels of attention, as the 18-year-old yet to make a league appearance for Arsenal weighed up his options between Germany, United States and Ethiopia, with United States apparently the direction he wants to go in.
It is a debate that Africa will regularly lose out on, however. The debate of how to use the diaspora is one that divides many, with some managers choosing to utilise it liberally, and others choosing to ignore it. Examples are numerous, with the general belief that the bond they feel to the country of their parents should be the item of primary importance, with selection of diaspora proving to both succeed and backfire depending on the context.
Successful examples include Yannick Bolasie, who has thrived in the jersey of DR Congo, choosing them over England and France. Playing well and showing a genuine interest in the background of his parents via the medium of his national team, it is an experience that both him and DR Congo are benefitting from. Not so successful examples include Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, who’s failure to gain a Germany call-up saw him decide to represent the Black Stars, and has since endured a complicated relationship where he has spent more time retired or banned from international football than actually playing them.
At the same time, it is not difficult to understand the bitterness of the citizens of said African countries when a player chooses Europe over them. The fact is that many of these players like Fekir would not be born in France were it not for the colonial oppression they forced on Algeria for over 100 years, with many families escaping to Europe to continue their lives in peace, with their children born away from the civil war which kicked off post-independence. You can argue that such civil wars would not have occurred were it not for a post-independence power vacuum, so to see France “take” their footballers as well must be a bitter pill to swallow.
But this is where football finds itself. As diaspora families continue to grow, the generation of players with dual nationality is coming through, and this debate is only going to become more common. If Africa continues to lose out like this, whether a change in perspective on diaspora selection occurs remains to be seen.