The international future of N’Golo Kante was the subject of much media deliberation, but the diminutive Leicester City midfielder had little hesitation when he finally got the call. Mali had made overtures to the 25-year-old, but he bided his time until France coach Didier Deschamps came knocking, explaining “it’s a chance to play in the Euros”.
Having to choose between two countries is a growing phenomenon in Europe, where many developing talents come from immigrant backgrounds and face a tug of the heart strings as well as a practical choice.
France may have won the tussle over Kante but recently one of its best young talents, Yassine Benzia, opted for Algeria after representing Les Bleus at every junior level. The north Africans wasted no time in tying down the 21-year-old Lille striker to their cause, handing him a first cap in March’s African Nations Cup qualifier against Ethiopia.
Last year Morocco began a determined approach to obtaining quality talent for their national team as they look ahead to the next African Nations Cup and World Cup finals. And an aggressive mission to persuade players of Moroccan heritage to commit to the Lions of Atlas has already had some success.
Enlisting Twente midfielder Hakim Ziyech was a huge coup as the 23-year-old threw his lot in with the north Africans rather than Holland, where he was born. He has been among the best players in the Eredivisie this season and Holland coach Danny Blind wanted to call him into the senior squad last June.
But that plan was shelved when the Holland under-21 international was injured.
“The better I played, the less the attention on me was,” says Ziyech. “I was only given a phone call after I said I wanted to go and play for Morocco.
“The Moroccan federation have been talking to me for years. I was born in Holland but my roots lie [in Morocco]. My father is buried there.”
Another Dutch-born youth international recently recruited by Morocco is Oussama Tannane. Holland Under-21 coach Fred Grim spent hours trying to persuade the Saint-Etienne winger to remain with the country where he was raised, but the 22-year-old went with the land of his birth and made his Morocco debut in the away win against Cape Verde in March’s African Nations Cup qualifier.
“We also can’t promise these players that they will go on and play for Oranje,” admits Grim. “We can’t guarantee they will make the team.”
Morocco did, however, lose out on Anwar El Ghazi when the Ajax striker was fast-tracked into the Dutch national team and handed a first senior cap in October, at the end of the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
And there is likely to be much more of this tying a player down – as Belgium did with Zakaria Bakkali when he was just 18 and Nigeria did recently with Arsenal teenager Alex Iwobi. Both were given a few minutes’ game time in competitive internationals to forever tie up their options.
The case of Parisian-born winger Sofiane Boufal highlights the dilemmas faced by players who are being tugged to and fro in the battle for their international service. Last June he was called up by Morocco for an African Nations Cup qualifier against Libya, only to change his mind before the game.
“I badly mismanaged the episode there,” says the Lille midfielder. “I’m still young, I just made a big mistake. In Morocco, there was a lot of pressure. I haven’t given up the dream of playing for France.”
Herve Renard was his coach at Lille at the start of that season and he suggested that Boufal would soon be wearing the French colours. “He has so much talent that he could walk into the France team now,” said Renard. “He’s a guy who is able to do exceptional things.”
In March, the 22-year-old did finally make his debut for Morocco, having been persuaded to play by their new coach…Herve Renard.
By Mark Gleeson