September 2023

The Double-Edged Sword African Footballers Face Playing for Europe

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Football is a global sport that transcends borders, cultures and identities.

It is also a sport that reflects the diversity and complexity of the world we live in. Many footballers of African descent have chosen to play for European countries, either because they were born there, moved there at a young age, or acquired citizenship through naturalization or ancestry. Some of them have become stars and heroes for their adopted nations, while others have faced challenges and controversies.

Playing for Europe as a footballer of African descent can be a double-edged sword, with both benefits and drawbacks.

One of the main benefits of playing for Europe is the opportunity to compete at the highest level of international football. The European Championship is one of the most prestigious and competitive tournaments in the world, featuring some of the best teams and players. Playing for Europe can also boost a player's career, exposure and market value, as well as opening doors to lucrative contracts and endorsements. Playing for Europe can also be a source of pride and identity, as well as a way of integrating into the society and culture of the host country.

related: The emergence of a new generation of African stars in Europe’s top leagues

On one hand, playing for a top football country in Europe is very prestigious for any player. Big clubs and large salaries await those who can break into the national teams of countries like France, England, Germany, Belgium and others. Additionally, competing at major tournaments like the World Cup and Euros can bring worldwide fame and attention.

However, behind the glory there is also a complexity that these players face. As children of African descent, they have a heritage that calls to them. Yet the European country they grew up in also shaped who they are. This can create conflicted feelings of split loyalties.

Criticism often comes from those who feel the player's talents should be devoted fully to their African roots.

Some see representing a European nation, despite African ancestry, as a betrayal of their background.

Of course, opportunities simply emerged more readily in the adopted European homeland. Doors opened there that likely would have remained closed had they pursued links only to the ancestral land. So these players made a pragmatic choice many years ago to represent the country where they developed.

related: The differences in the top Football (soccer) leagues

Still, their African heritage remains part of their identity. This can make true acceptance difficult, even after national team success. Subtle prejudice may lurk as some struggle to embrace them as truly belonging.

Away from the pitch, racist attitudes and questioning of their loyalty can take a toll. The color of their skin makes them stand out, and ignorant voices often fail to see past that.

These players forge ahead, pursuing excellence to break down barriers. They hope their skills and achievements will slowly transform attitudes. With every magnificent goal or key win, a few more minds open.

Yet they continue down a path that brings pride but also pain. Hailed as heroes by some, called traitors by others. It's a heavy weight to carry.

Here are some of the prominent football players who play for European countries but have African descent:

  • Kylian Mbappe Is the son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.
  • Romelu Lukaku has roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his parents were born.
  • Antonio Rüdiger’s parents escaped the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and moved to Berlin.
  • David Alaba was born in Angola, but moved to Austria as a child.
  • Memphis Depay’s  father comes from Ghana
  • William Carvalho was born in Luanda, Angola, but moved to Portugal as a child
  • Bukayo Saka was born to Nigerian parents. 
  • Ngolo Kante was born in France to Mali parents

Barry Ugochukwu

Lead writer for JRZY FC. I am also a machine learning engineer & lover of tech, sports and all things football.

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