France - a great incubator for African soccer talent. A sustainable system or not?
The reigning world champions won the 2018 FIFA World cup in style. Les Blues made lightwork of a resilient Croatian side as they cruised to a 4-2 victory that warranted them the world cup gold. With a squad averaging 26 years of age, the joint second youngest squad at the tournament in Russia, not many would have seen France going all the way, at least I didn’t - especially that the tourney had been won by ‘experienced’ and ‘talented’ squads in times past, which really means relatively old players playing for the biggest of clubs in the world. One indisputable fact to the European country’s world cup triumph is their strength in diversity, in particular - deep appreciation of players of African descent. Don’t worry, it’s not that cliche write-up, bestowing the honor of the world cup gold on Africa. The French football fraternity has done so much more in including African players in their academies and local clubs, that it’s even hard to ignore. Deliberately or objectively, they have have just done it.
What is it really, that they do?
If you come across players of color or Arabic football players in the French leagues, it’s almost certain that they will be of African descent. Francophone West African countries such as Ivory Coast, Togo, Mali as well as Algeria and Tunisia in the north are the most common, as result of the close ties between the above countries and France due to colonial history. France is simply not so uptight with their immigration laws which have amounted to a sizeable number of African parents moving to the country in search of “greener pastures.”
Here is the interesting part. An African is born a great football talent - whether or not they grew up playing in the streets with a rubbish ball, dancing past cars. They are simply born good, it seems to always come with the blood. Take my word for it. The reason why African countries are not at the top, is just as the adage says - fewer resources or mismanagement of them thereof has seen the continent’s football systems lag behind despite hosting the brightest of talent. Now, those African children born in France, and because they are born good football players - France’s established systems and infrastructure make them great. Nine times out of ten, every French top flight team has their star players having that African heritage.
Let’s play a game
Picking a French Ligue 1 team at random, let’s trace the roots of their star players. Lets even start with PSG, the cash-loaded side with a host of expensive imported players from everywhere. The golden boy, Kylian Mbappe was born to a Cameroonian father, even their academy starlets in for example Alan Nkunku who has been getting some first team minutes under Tuchel, the boy has roots in DR Congo. Lyon’s captain, Nabil Fekir, the 2018 world cup winner is of Algerian descent, second-placed LOSC Lille have their attackers crowned with Ivorian talent in Jonathan Bamba and Nicolas Pepe. Marseille and French shot stopper, Steve Mandanda was born in DR Congo it goes on and on to the lowest of leagues. The game gets really boring, but I am sure you got the point.
About the current heroes
African players conversations are dominated by names such Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Liverpool trio in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita, Man City’s Riyad Mahrez amongst many others. The above are definitely the most expensive African players and amongst if not the creme de la creme and guess what? It’s only Mohamed Salah who did not have France as his doorway to professional football and eventual success. Even countries like England and Belgium have had their most recent successes on the international front boosted by this #strength in (African) diversity. The likes of Dele Alli, Ryan Sessegnon, Romelu Lukaku, Nacer Chadli, Vincent Kompany among many other notable names - they all have African roots.
A question for Africa
There are few African greats who have bypassed France to stardom which include the likes of the Zambian, Kalusha Bwalya, Nigeria’s Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Peter Ndlovu from Zimbabwe and many more. Like I said, they are just few - only a tiny fraction of similar players who have just as much talent or even better. Perhaps the pertinent question for the continent at this stage is, what about all those who cannot be catered for by the French system or any other more established ones? Should we continue letting it be and hope by chance, things would get better and we would then eventually be where we are supposed to be, the top?
Let’s have this conversation.