African Options

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 1st 2009)

Options

The most militant of the legendary reggae group, the Wailers, Peter Tosh was gunned down in Jamaica in 1987, but left a musical legacy. Among the lyrics he made famous was: “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” So how true is this on the football pitch?

We decided to put it to the test in the Eredivisie during our trip to the Netherlands last December – a visit that saw Heracles Almelo visit strugglers FC Volendam, Sparta Rotterdam host Heerenveen, Feyenoord tackle NAC Breda and Mario Been’s NEC Nijmegen visit title favourites AZ Alkmaar. We were given access to several players, both Africans and those of African origins.

Dominique Kivuvu gave us an exclusive interview that was featured in the last issue of the magazine. He has Angolan origins and Luis Oilveira Gonçalves, the former coach of the Pancalas Negras monitored his progress, but decided that the young Dutch-born midfielder wasn’t ready yet and that he had other options for Kivuvu’s position before last year’s African Cup of Nations tournament in Ghana.

Kivuvu wants to test himself at the highest level, but believes that he has time. After failing to make Gonçalves’ squad Kivuvu expressed an interest in playing for the Netherlands – the country that he represented at youth level previously – in the Olympic Games in Beijing, so what are his international allegiances?

I haven’t looked at the future,” he said. “I hope I get a good future and I play for a big club and I play for a national team, but I’m not looking that far.” Kivuvu has two passports, so he has yet to commit his international future. “I think there is a way for me, because I never played an official game with the Netherlands, so I still can choose,” said the industrious midfielder whose energetic displays won over his coach at NEC, Mario Been. Nevertheless, it was hardly a ringing endorsement of Tosh’s philosophy.

Equivocal

Perhaps the current top-scorer in the Eredivisie, Mounir el Hamdaoui is a better example. He was born in Rotterdam and was developed through Dutch football programmes. He received international recognition at Under-21 level, but his hopes to progress to full Oranje never materialised.

Frustrated the young striker decided that his best option lay in north-Africa – Morocco to be exact, so he asked FIFA for permission to change his national federation. If a player has represented one nation in an official youth match they may change nationalities, but they will not be allowed to do so again and the change must be made before they turn 21.

This could prove Kivuvu’s undoing, but Dutch players have succeeded in switching allegiance before. Quincy Owusu-Abeyie opted to play for Ghana just before the African Cup of Nations and el Hamdaoui’s request was accepted too, but despite playing a minor international in 2005 the full cap failed to materialise quickly and el Hamdaoui began to experience the same frustrations, even expressing a wish to pledge his future back to the Netherlands, but it was too late.

Furthermore, injury blighted his progress as did lack of opportunities at club level. It was not until he returned to Dutch football at AZ Alkmaar, via Willem II, that el Hamdaoui began to press a worthy claim for international recognition. It came in February 2009 as new coach Philippe Troussier gave him his début, which was soon followed by a goal in his second cap. Fans in the Mohammed V Stadium appreciated his play, but even though el Hamdaoui pledged his future to Morocco, it was hardly the unequivocal acceptance of his African heritage that Tosh had called for.

Ambitions

So, what about his Dutch-born compatriot with Moroccan origins, NAC Breda’s Fouad Idabdelhay, who gave us an interview after his team were beaten by Feyenoord at the de Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam, thanks in part to a wonderful goal by Feyenoord’s young starlet, Diego Biseswar. Like Biseswar, Idabdelhay’s football talent was spotted as a boy and developed in the Netherlands.

I started when I was 12,” said Idabdelhay. “I played for the youth team and now I play for the first team of NAC Breda. I was part of the academy and I played six years. When I was 19 I played for the firsts and this is now my second year to play for the NAC team. That is my job now.” He has played for both the Under-20 and Under-21 Dutch teams, but understands that he has to play out of position if that is in the best interests of NAC. “I like to play as a forward. I like to play number 9, but now the chance is not there. I must do what the team needs; it doesn’t matter. I must do like 100% to play there even if it’s not my position.”

So what about his ambitions? How far away is a a full Dutch cap? “First I must do my best to be the striker of NAC Breda,” he said. “I’m now 20 years old. My job is to play for NAC Breda I must do that and hopefully I will be in the Dutch team in a year, but first I have to be the striker with NAC Breda and score goals. If you score goals you can go to a big club in England or Spain.”

His admiration of attacking football is clear. “I really like how Arsenal play,” he said. “I’m a fan of Arsenal because my favourite player Thierry Henry played there – he now plays for Barcelona. In England, Arsenal are like my favourite. You have Manchester City now – any club in England is good. If you can play in the Premiership it’s a different perspective and then in Spain it’s good too, because you have big clubs like Barcelona, Valencia and Real Madrid and Villarreal are breaking through, but Iprefer not to think about that because it’s too far ahead. First I must be good and do well with NAC Breda.”

So what about the World Cup? Is that too soon for him? “Well I don’t know. I’d like to play for Holland, then I can show the world things to other countries like England and Spain, who will be watching what you have in your possession and what you can do and that’s why I would really like to play when I’m 21 to play like that.”

Second Thoughts

So has he ever experienced racism in Dutch football? “Not yet,” he said, before adding a curiously pessimistic proviso. “I think sometimes that I will.” Idabdelhay has African origins, but he sees himself as Dutch, or does he? He welcomes the World Cup going to Africa next year. “It’s very important, because I’m from Morocco in North Africa,” he said, “so it’s very important that the World Cup will go to Africa.”

He still has the option of switching nationality, so did the prospect of changing international allegiance to Morocco and playing alongside fellow Dutch youth international Mounir el Hamdaoui tempt him? The thought occurred to him. “Yeah, but they never called me and now I play for Holland,” he said. “I concentrate myself to Holland and not Morocco. If they come I will think about it, but now I play for Holland.”

Idabdelhay has dreams, but they are not of Africa. He might have opted to play for Morocco if they had contacted him, but they didn’t. He focuses on the needs of his club and his dreams and when he looks back on his career what he hopes to have achieved it isn’t caps for Morocco, although if they came knocking he would give them a hearing.

I would like to think that everything that I’ve got I showed to people,” said Idabdelhay. “I hope that I can say I did my best and I got everything out of my career and maybe I play in England or Spain which is my dream.”

Motivation?

But there is an even more worrying trend for those who think that players with African origins should choose the African country. Are they doing it because they feel African, or because they have given up hope of playing for the European country? Quincy Owusu Abeyie impressed at the Under-20 World Championship in Tokyo in 2005.

He was tipped for great things, but there were flaws in his game. He had all the tricks, but lacked end product and had problems with his attitude. Ajax expelled him from their academy. Arsenal took a chance on him, expecting him to be Thierry Henry’s successor. He wasn’t and a move to Moscow didn’t work out either, nor did a loan to Celta de Vigo.

Then he returned to English football in the Championship, but before that Owusu-Abeyie realised that he could not force his way into the plans of then Netherlands coach Marco van Basten. He was persuaded by Laryea Kingston to apply to change his international allegiance to Ghana. He did so before he turned 21, but prior to that – his last opportunity to do so – Owusu-Abeyie had steadfastly rebuffed Ghanaian approaches and declared his intention to play for the Netherlands.

This was no Damascene conversion, or discovery of his African heritage; it was his last chance of international football and he almost threw it away by turning up late for international duty, despite his then club Birmingham City releasing him in plenty of time. He was suspended by the Black Stars’ coach Milovan Rajevac.

Dutch football hardly offers a ringing endorsement of Peter Tosh’s views of black and African consciousness. Perhaps African countries need to look to other means to develop their national teams, such as developing their own academies and even more importantly their own leagues, rather than look to European-born players of African origin, some of whom regard them as a little more than a safety net if the hoped for call-up from the European nation doesn’t come, or even as quickly as they would like. There should be more to playing international football than a flag of convenience and African nations should nurture their own talent far more efficiently.

 

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