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The biggest beneficiaries of a recent change in the FIFA statutes on nationality will be African countries

By Mark Gleeson in Cape Town
African countries are looking to profit from another change to the FIFA statutes which has further eased restrictions on players seeking to switch footballing nationality. The age limit at which players had to make a choice has been removed, letting a handful of players claim a new international career.

The vast majority of those to benefit will be players born in Europe but of African descent, whose skills will now be available to national sides across Africa. The first five players to benefit did so during the round of international fixtures in August, just after the expiry of the 60-day hiatus before the law could take effect.

All were former France youth internationals who had not gone on to play for Les Bleus at senior level and who were now seeking to throw their lot in with the countries of their parents’ birth. Previously they had been unable to make the switch because they had not applied to FIFA for the change before turning 21.

Since 2003, players capped at junior level had been allowed to switch countries but only if they are entitled to dual nationality, had made no international appearances and were under 21. But Tottenham Hotspur’s Sebastien Bassong, Rennes duo Lucien Aubey and Moussa Sow, Nice’s Matt Moussilou and Lazio midfielder Mourad Meghni have now become full internationals, with several others likely to join their ranks before the end of the year.

The desire to have Meghni play for Algeria was the catalyst for the change and it was the north African country which brought the proposal for dropping the age limit to the 2009 FIFA Congress in Bahamas. Despite some strong opposition, they saw it passed.

“We didn’t think it was fair that players [of African origin] were being selected for junior teams of European countries and then never getting a chance to play at full international level. Our proposal was to give freedom to these players to have a right to choose,” explains Algeria FA chief Mohamed Raouraoua, who was the architect of the proposal.

“Having these players is a huge benefit for us and many other African teams. Since 2003 we have had access to many quality players who have vastly improved our team. It improves the African game as a whole.”

Algeria now hope to add Benfica’s Hassan Yebda, a former France Under-17 international, to their squad for September’s vital World Cup qualifier at home to Zambia.

The end for Song?
But Bassong’s selection for Cameroon could ironically abruptly end the distinguished career of the country’s iconic captain, Rigobert Song. For his first match in charge, the Indomitable Lions’ new coach, Paul Le Guen, dropped the veteran Song and played Bassong instead.

Paris-born Moussilou was man of the match as Congo drew away to Morocco, while Aubey was also in the side, and 31-year-old Guingamp midfielder Christian Bassila, who has played in the past for West Ham and Sunderland, is likely to be the next to join Congo’s ranks. Meanwhile, Sow made his debut for Senegal in the friendly win over the Democratic Republic of Congo in France.

Morocco will now try to persuade several players to join them. These include German-born striker Mimoun Azaouagh of Bochum, and Dutch-born pair Nordin Amrabat and Otman Bakkal of PSV Eindhoven. Former Germany youth internationals now available to African sides will include the Boateng brothers (Kevin-Prince of Tottenham and Hamburg’s Jerome), whose father is from Ghana, as well as Dennis Aogo, also of Hamburg, who is of Nigerian descent.

Nigeria could also sound out Manchester City’s Nedum Onuoha and Shola Ameobi of Newcastle, both capped by England at Under-21 level, while Senegal have their eye on Jacques Faty of Sochaux, captain of the France Under-17 side which won the world championship in 2001.

Ideally, says Raouraoua, there should be a further change to the statutes to allow players to switch allegiance even if they have played at full international level but have then not been capped again for more than three years. The Algerians cite the case of Monaco midfielder Camel Meriem, capped four times by France between 2004 and 2005 then cast into the international wilderness.

Such a change would open the door for other ex-France internationals such as Wigan’s Olivier Kapo and Peguy Luyindula of Paris Saint-Germain (DR Congo), plus Ousmane Dabo of Lazio and PSG’s Zoumana Camara (both Senegal).

However, Raouraoua reckons it is unlikely, admitting: “I don’t think FIFA would want to contemplate a situation where a footballer appears at a World Cup finals for one country and then returns in the colours of another.”

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