African Cup of Nations winners 2013For a good few years when it comes to national team football in Nigeria, there was always a lot of interest from the locals, asking questions on why and how domestic players should be considered as good enough for the ‘Super Eagles’.

The class of 2013 that won the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa had one or two players who plied their trade in Nigeria, and the fact that the Cup-winning goal that gave the trophy to Nigeria was scored by a local player further buttressed the calls for more recognition for domestic players.

When the national team performs badly occasionally, the people are quick to state – ‘our local teams can do better than this team that is made up of foreign-based players’.

Since the arrival of Gernot Rohr as coach of Nigeria, anytime there is an upcoming game, there was always a call for local players to be included in the program. Gernot Rohr has been chastised many a time for not considering domestic players worthy of a shot at national team inclusion. The jury is out on the correctness of this claim but it is a matter for another day.

After a satisfactory campaign in the 2019 AFCON, which resulted in a well earned and deserved third place finish, the calls have changed, and the clamours have taken a completely opposite turn.

Suffice to note at this point that the Algerian team that beat Nigeria in the semi-finals of the AFCON 2019 en route to winning the tournament had, in its team, players who were predominantly born away from Algeria – many of whom had played at various age-grade levels for European countries especially France and Belgium. These players then switched allegiance to Algeria and built themselves up from there to make a formidable team that became worthy African champions.

Even their star player – Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez was born and raised in France and cut his football teeth in France.

There certainly is benefit in looking outward at players of African origin and encouraging such players to come and play for their nations of origin. The current Nigerian team has had its fair share of it – with players like Alex Iwobi, William Ekong, Leon Balogun, Tyronne Ebuehi, Bryan Idowu, Semi Ajayi, Joe Aribo and a few others flying the flag in that department; and they are mainstay figures in the Nigerian team today.

There was a movement that was set up in 2012, known as Africa Sport in Diaspora, encouraging Diaspora children of African origin to turn out in sport for their countries of origin.

Players like Victor Moses, Shola Ameobi, Lomana LuaLua among others, subscribed to the principles of ASiD and made successes of their international careers with it.

Fast forward back to 2019 and the team of youngsters that are being assembled by Gernot Rohr for the future of Nigeria. The calls, as stated above, have changed swiftly. It is now no longer a call for domestic players to be called to the Nigerian national team setup. Rather, every young player born and raised in Europe, who can walk, run and perhaps feature in any game for any top European side, is now seen to be good enough to be called to play for Nigeria.

There is little regard for the position the player features in, his over-the-season stats, his ability to fit in with the typical African style of play – all people now see is a kid on TV playing for his European club, and boom, the call to invite him to play for Nigeria.

And this is where the call for caution comes in.

There are many Diaspora players in the world. The international football circuit has changed over the years. We have had players who were born in a foreign land due to the fact that their parents left their homeland to sojourn. Such players have turned out for the countries that they regard as ‘home’.

Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaef and a host of many others represented France despite very strong links to Africa. But so also have we had players like we mentioned above – Victor Moses, Shola Ameobi and others – who chose to represent their countries of origin, for whatever reason.

The caution is against the sense of entitlement that Africans tend to feel when it comes to these players.

Tammy Abraham is a player, born in London 22 years ago to Nigerian parents. Tammy Abraham joined the Academy of Chelsea FC at the age of 7 years, and has been in Chelsea since then.

As a young player in one of the top academies of football in the country – most successful with triumphs in FA Youth Cup, FA Youth Premier League and in the UEFA Youth League (the youth equivalent of the Champions League), it was only natural that the country where he cut his football teeth will invite him to play for them at various age-grade levels.

Abraham developed and became a senior Chelsea player and worked through the ranks, being sent on loan on many occasions to other clubs for more experience.

When he matured while on loan in another club, Nigeria spotted him, linked him to his natural heritage, and started clamouring for him to become a part of the Nigerian national team setup. The Nigeria Football Federation president is a friend of Tammy Abraham’s father and people expected him to convince the young man to switch allegiance to Nigeria on that basis. A meeting even took place between the player, his father and the Nigerian FF President. There was a big fallout – club and the FA youth development section reportedly forcing a retraction from the player – saying he has not considered a switch to Nigeria.

The matter died – albeit temporarily.

Then Chelsea, in the wake of a transfer ban and losing some of its top players, could not possibly loan out players as much as they would have done. This meant Tammy Abraham became an integral part of a youthful Chelsea team, and he flourished in the early part of this season – already netting 7 goals in 6 Premier League games….and the noises started again.

Now Nigerians feel that he really HAS TO make the switch to play for the Super Eagles; and the officials and staff of the Super Eagles have been put under pressure to ensure that Tammy doesn’t go – and that ‘we must not lose him to England’!

The same now goes for another player – Fikayo Tomori – who is also in the same boat as Abraham, in that he grew up in the Chelsea Academy, had been on loan in various clubs previously, would have been out again on loan this year if Chelsea did not have a ban, but is flourishing in the first team. He has to be a part of the Super Eagles, at all cost, according to the wide reports.

Suddenly, the spotlight is now on EVERY young player who has a Nigerian name and plays a few minutes here and there for big clubs – Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Sheyi Ojo (Rangers), Ebere Eze (Queens Park Rangers), Ademola Lookman (now in RB Leipzig) and a host of others. And in the view of many, they have to be brought in to the Super Eagles setup.

There was a report recently saying ‘Tammy Abraham will, in the next few days, turn his back on Nigeria and choose England when the next squad is announced for October internationals’. And it was a big surprise to this writer who received messages from Nigeria saying pretty much along the lines of ‘if the reports we hear are true, Tammy Abraham can go to hell!’.

Now that was unnecessary.

What makes it the right of Nigeria to feel that a player MUST choose a country he probably had never visited over the country that helped his development from youth level? Do we know the circumstances under which his parents left Nigeria in the first place?

The argument that England will not use Abraham in the long run and it will be a waste of his talent is his own prerogative. He might blossom in England, and he might not. But he will never come back and blame anyone if he fails. It will be his decision.

Gabby Agbonlahor said No to Nigeria. He ended up making only 3 appearances for England, when he might have done more for Nigeria. If he has any regrets, he is certainly not crying publicly over it. Has he not moved on from it? Definitely he has.

Danny Welbeck was approached by Ghana in 2010. He refused and played for England and had 42 caps to his name. Will he have done much better playing for Ghana? No one can ever know.

Dele Alli was born to a Nigerian father. He was seen as a potential midfield maestro for Nigeria, if he could have been convinced to play for the Super Eagles. He not only did not want to play for Nigeria, he also has a fully documented rift with his father and reportedly does not want to be associated with anything that links him to the older Mr Alli. Dele Alli today is an integral part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad and, save for injuries, is having a whale of time in it.

Every situation has its own dynamics. Nigeria, and other African countries should open its doors to players that want to represent their countries of origin. The setup must be good, the administration must show that we are willing and able to absorb them. But we must not feel entitled to it. The players have a lot more riding on whatever decisions they take, and they should still be encouraged to make the right decision that will be seen as good for them.

When the player switches to us, like Semi Ajayi did, like William Ekong did, like Leon Balogun did, like Tyronne Ebuehi did, like Joe Aribo did, we should embrace them and be happy they came.

But when they say no, let us respect what they say and still appreciate them for the qualities they are showing on the pitch. And terms like ‘go to hell’ should really not be used on such decisions.

Respect in football, is key. Let us live by the word and what it represents.