Eusebio, Larsson, Zidane and the stars the Afcon missed

Cape Verde will take on Tunisia on Sunday with a number of players born abroad but more often African countries have lost out to European nations in dual-eligiblity battles

When Marseille’s Mario Lemina was named by Gabon in their 23-man squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, he said ‘no thanks’. He was part of France’s winning team at the Under-20 World Cup in 2013 and fancies his chances of a call-up to Didier Deschamps’ senior side.

Despite his family ties, and the fact that he was born in Gabon, Lemina joins a long and illustrious list of names who have been lost to Africa’s national teams.

It started decades ago with two of the greats of world football, Eusebio and Mario Coluna. They won the European Cup with Benfica and collectively played more than 120 times for Portugal, despite having lived in Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa) until they were 18 and 19 respectively.

The Cup of Nations started in 1957 but Mozambique had no professional football league and played no meaningful international matches back then. Eusebio and Coluna had little choice but to represent Portugal.

More recently, one of the high-profile players who could have featured at the Cup of Nations was Henrik Larsson, a Champions League winner with Barcelona in 2006 and one of Celtic’s most popular players.

Larsson was raised in Sweden but was eligible, via his father, to represent Cape Verde. It was never going to happen, though.

“I will be cheering for Cape Verde in the Cup of Nations,” Larsson told Goal, “but nobody ever said I should play for them, because I started playing for age groups for Sweden when I was young. Anyway, I am Swedish. It might have been an option if I hadn’t played for Sweden so early but it was just never considered.

african 11 miss afcon

“I have been there twice and on one of my visits there was a qualifying match on television. Cape Verde had some good players – plenty from the Portuguese league (there are seven in their Cup of Nations squad) – and they were technically good. They did well last time and they look like a good team.”

Many dual-national players have opted to represent European rather than African teams, including three who won the 1998 World Cup for France – Zinedine Zidane (Algeria), Marcel Desailly (Ghana) and Claude Makelele (DR Congo).

It can be a tough call. The Boatengs, Jerome and Kevin-Prince, both played age-group football for Germany, where they were born, before opting for different countries. Kevin-Prince, now at Schalke, has a map of Ghana as one of his many tattoos and has played for the Black Stars. His half-brother Jerome is a regular for Germany.

Nigeria’s biggest loss in recent years is Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, whose father is Yoruba. Alaba, the versatile midfielder and left-back, was raised in Austria and became that nation’s youngest capped player aged 17.

Sampdoria’s striker Stefano Okaka, born and raised in Italy, had talked about playing for Nigeria but is now part of the Azzurri set-up, as is the Juventus defender Angelo Ogbonna. The most high-profile Italian-African, of course, is Mario Balotelli, who could have played for Ghana.