x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

African Cup of Nations: Eligibility rows show home not where heart is

Turning out for your country of origin is not as straightforward as it might seem, as Ian Hawkey discovers.

Sion's Guilherme Afonso may have represented Switzerland at the Under 21 level but will play for Angola in the Cup of Nations. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Sion's Guilherme Afonso may have represented Switzerland at the Under 21 level but will play for Angola in the Cup of Nations. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

When Gustavo Ferrin took over as head coach of the Angola national team last July, one or two things surprised him. Ferrin is a worldly man, with plenty of distinguished years in football, but he was puzzled by the disconnect between the apparent potential of young Angolan players and his senior squad.

Ferrin noted how few of the players selected for Angola's age-group teams, the teenagers and 20 year olds, tended to then graduate successfully to the first team. He knew he had been hired partly to address that problem.

What sparkles most in the 53-year-old Uruguayan's curriculum vitae is the work he did with youth teams in his native country. The overwhelming majority of the Uruguayan footballers who reached the semi-final of the last World Cup and followed that up by winning the most recent Copa America, were nurtured by Ferrin.

The idea of coaching in Africa intrigued him, as it does so many managers from elsewhere.

As he prepared his Angolans for the Africa Cup of Nations, in which they face Morocco on Saturday's opening night of fixtures in Soweto, he talked of "the sleeping giant" that is African football, but also of the complexities of the game there, many of which seem most extreme in a country like Angola.

"The difference between Angola and Uruguay is huge in many ways," he says. "Uruguay is a small country of three million people which overachieves in the sport but has had a solid basis in the game for a long time. Angola is a big country but hasn't had that."

He was familiar enough with the place's history to know part of the reason why. One of the world's most brutal and scarring civil wars devastated the oil- and diamond-rich nation's infrastructure for a quarter of a century until the 2002 peace accord.

"The environment any young Angolan has grown up in has not been easy," says Ferrin.

When Angola, stunningly, qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals, having scarcely ever threatened the medal spots at a Nations Cup, it seemed a sleeping giant was about to wake up with a roar.

One aspect of the country's peace dividend has been significant corporate sponsorship into the domestic league.

Angola, unflambouyant but tough at the 2006 World Cup, performed adequately there and then began reaching Nations Cup quarter-finals. It looked like a springboard.

One of the biggest clubs in the world suddenly went shopping in Angola, Manchester United buying the striker Manucho Goncalves from Petro Atletico. A world superstar, the veteran Rivaldo, was even enticed, spend a season in the Angolan first division, with Kabuscorp.

Manucho would find first-team opportunities very rare at Old Trafford, though he has since carved out a successful career with Valladolid in Spain's Primera Liga.

But he is still a rarity for having been scouted and recruited by a major European club beyond Portugal, the former colonial landlord of Angola, and the place ambitious Angolan players most realistically aspire to move to.

As Ferrin points out, Manucho is also unusual for having come up through the national youth ranks.

Most of the successful Angolan players tend to have played from a young age in Portugal. Some are dual-nationals, with Portuguese citizenship. Because of Angola's recent, fractured history, the country has a large diaspora, and one that stretches well beyond Portugal.

So, like his immediate predecessors as national coach, Ferrin felt obliged to scour the diaspora once he had qualified the so-called Sable Antelopes for their fourth successive Nations Cup.

"We need a better database about who might be eligible," he notes, though he is pleased to have secured, last month, the commitment of striker Guilherme Afonso, a former Switzerland Under 21 international.

Afonso's parents fled Angola for Switzerland when he was a young child. He is far from unique in his generation for that. Other footballers have more dramatic back stories.

Rio Mavuba, the Lille midfielder, was born at sea after his Angolan mother and Congolese father fled Angola by boat en route for France. Congo and Angola both showed interest in the grown-up Mavuba playing for them. He chose France. Across the cast-list of the 2013 Nations Cup are several men who might have played for a different country to the African one they will represent over the next three weeks.

Since Fifa, a decade ago, adapted their strict regulations on international eligibility and allowed players to change their elected country - provided they had the right family or residential qualifications - even if they had played for a different country at age-group level, the lead-up to big tournaments has involved something akin to a mini-transfer window.

Federations start talks urgently to dual-nationality players about a new career as an international, and rush though the relevant paperwork.

Because Africa has seen so much emigration in the post-colonial era, its teams tend to be especially involved.

Ghana were in a race against time just before the last World Cup to register Kevin-Prince Boateng, the AC Milan midfielder who was born in Germany to a Ghanaian father, as theirs. He ended up playing against his brother Jerome, a Germany defender, in the group phase.

But Kevin-Prince Boateng, who played at every youth level for Germany, has since turned his back on Ghana - much to their annoyance - and will not be at the Nations Cup.

As Ferrin says: "When you bring in players who don't have the shared background as the others, it is not just about their ability. You have to be sure their heart is in playing for country."

Plenty have shown that. Didier Drogba, who spent much of his youth in France and would have been eligible to play for Les Bleus, has been an iconic captain for Ivory Coast. Frederic Kanoute, who represented France Under 21s, went on to lead Mali's national team with inspiring conviction.

Yet sometimes, young men being what they are, stoking a patriotic heart that might feel divided requires something beyond a stirring anthem and the glory of the national jersey.

This reporter heard recently from a promising young player in a leading European league about the inducements being offered to him to turn out for the African country his parents come from rather than committing himself to the European nation of his birth: Flashy cars and other commodities which, it is safe to report, are well beyond the economic reach of most people in the African country concerned.

Mostly, it is the other way around.

Typically, motives for a young footballer to choose a European international career rather than an African one are many: higher pay and bonuses for international matches; higher sponsorship deals for stars of European nations than for African ones.

And no nagging, every two years, from your European club manager about the fact you are going off to play in a Nations Cup in January and February, in the middle of the club season.

Indeed, there are enough very good African players - such as Boateng, or South Africa's Steve Pienaar - not at the forthcoming Nations Cup because they are prioritising their club careers for it to be entirely understandable that the continent should ask to borrow a little of its bloodline back from Europe from time to time.