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Foreign-born players fueling title glory for teams at 2023 Africa Cup of Nations

A record number of players at AFCON 2023 were born in a foreign country and their presence in their origin country's football teams is hailed as a win for the game on the continent.

TWENTY-FOUR nations, divided into six groups, are competing at the delayed 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in the Ivory Coast but the most striking aspect is the large number of players born outside of Africa.

The 2023 tournament has several global superstars setting it alight and of the 630 selected for the various nations, 200 were not born on the continent. South Africa, Namibia and Egypt are the only nations without a player born out of Africa.

After the 2019 tournament in Egypt, many were surprised to see the streets of Paris full of celebrations after Algeria won the tournament but it is not hard to understand why.

France remains the country with the largest football ‘exports’ to Africa and even at the AFCON 2023, the situation is the same.

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Of the 200 diaspora players in the Ivory Coast, 104 were born in France. This, is in fact, a reduced number compared to the 2021 edition when 122 of the 199 foreign-born players came from the country.

Spain is the second-most represented nation at AFCON with 24 players born in the country followed by England, which has 15, the Netherlands 13 and 10 born in Portugal.

English-born Nigerian midfielder Alex Iwobi during an interview with the media at AFCON 2023. Photo: Joel Omotto, bird story agency

There are also several players born in Denmark, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland at the tournament.

Tournament favourites Morocco, who made history by reaching the semi-final of the 2022 World Cup thanks to their football exports, have the biggest number of foreign-born players at AFCON 2023.

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The Atlas Lions have 18 diaspora players led by star winger Hakim Ziyech and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, both born in the Netherlands, Spain-born defender Achraf Hakimi, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, born in Canada, and French-born captain Romain Saiss among others.

Equatorial Guinea is second with 17 diaspora players, among them Spanish-born captain Emilio Nsue, while the Democratic Republic of Congo follows closely with 16.

Former West Ham defender Arthur Masuaku, ex-Chelsea midfielder Gael Kakuta, and strikers Cedric Bakambu and Yoane Wissa of Branford are the star players in the DRC squad who were all born in France.

Algeria have 14 foreign-born players in their squad and nearly all of them were born in France. Star forward Riyad Mahrez, midfielders Ismael Bennacer and Nabil Bentaleb and defender Rayan Ait-Nouri are some of the big names who were born in France.

Cape Verde is the other country with a huge foreign-born contingent, five born in France, four in the Netherlands, three in Portugal and one each in Ireland and Switzerland.

Like Algeria in 2019, Senegal also benefited greatly from their diaspora players as they lifted their maiden AFCON title in 2021 and they will be relying on them once again.

Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, captain Kalidou Koulibaly, defender Bouna Sarr and Nampalys Mendy are among Senegal’s star names born in France while the hosts Ivory Coast will also be relying on eight foreign-born players to lead them to success.

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The Ivorian foreign-born contingent also trace their roots to France, starting with defender Willy Boly, midfielder Seko Fofana, scorer of the first goal at the 2023 tournament, and star forwards Sebastien Haller and Nicolas Pepe.

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There are several historical and social-political reasons for this. Algeria and Senegal’s colonial history with France plays a major part the same with Equatorial Guinea’s ties to Spain.

Cape Verde, which until 1975 was part of Portugal, is the other nation with a history of European colonialism.

“It’s something special,” Cape Verde midfielder Deroy Duarte told The Athletic on the feeling of playing for the country. “A lot of players come from different countries, had different upbringings, different environments, but when we’re together it feels like we’ve all been together for a long time.”

However, for others, it was down to war. Ivory Coast and the DRC for instance have players whose parents or grandparents fled the war to settle in Europe.

Cape Verde’s Dutch-born midfielder Jamiro Monteiro celebrates his goal against Ghana at AFCON 2023. Photo Courtesy: CAF

For Nigeria, who have the likes of Alex Iwobi, Ola Aina, William Troost-Ekong, Joseph Aribo and Calvin Bassey among those born abroad, most of their parents emigrated to Europe in search of greener pastures, the same case with the Moroccans.

“I have enjoyed African football, the tempo is a bit quicker and a lot more aggressive but I have adapted to that,” Iwobi told the media in Abidjan of his experience in African football.

Bringing together players born and raised in different countries has its challenges but the benefits transcend football.

“Creole is the dominant language in the squad,” said Cape Verde defender Roberto Lopes. “In the country, everything is taught in Portuguese, but people speak Creole. It’s very difficult to learn unless you’re around Cape Verdeans because there’s no literature to study.”

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“It creates a sense of togetherness. When we’re training or in the hotel, there’s always Cape Verdean music playing. You get a sense of the culture and heritage,” he said.

These players do not just add spice to the tournament but also lift the local game. There is improved technical and tactical flavour from teams with these players since their skills were honed in countries with the best facilities.

Because of this, there have been several upsets in the first round of matches as witnessed when Cape Verde stunned Ghana 2-1, Equatorial Guinea held Nigeria 1-1 while Mozambique run Egypt close before drawing 2-2.

The unpredictability of the AFCON, where giants are not guaranteed success, is what fans were yearning for and they are getting it in plenty, thanks to the foreign-born players.

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By JOEL OMOTTO, BIRD STORY AGENCY

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