Diaspora FC: Why It’s Time for This Generation to Go Back to Their Motherlands
We don’t talk enough about the pressures of dual nationality in pro football. Imagine being a young baller with the world at your feet. Who do you choose to play for?
If you were to ask any young baller to list their biggest ambitions, representing their nation will always come high on the list. It’s easy to gloss over international football, but this is still the highest level a player can reach. You conquer your school team when you’re young, take over your borough or county as a teenager, then eventually the domestic game if you’re deemed good enough to rise through the pro ranks. Competing on the international stage is the next 'natural' step for any baller to take.
Some may collect a handful of international caps and be content, while others might pull on their country’s shirt in several major tournaments and can’t believe their luck. However, there are hundreds of players in every generation who aren’t as fortunate. Mainly because their birth nations have access to massive talent pools.
In all of this, a conversation that’s often forgotten is the presence of dual nationality. Imagine being a young baller with the world at your feet. What country do you choose to play for?
This is the dilemma facing Diaspora FC.
“Outside might be Britain, but in this house, this is Africa.”
Diaspora FC represents this cohort of players – second and third generation migrants, kicking it at the highest levels – who are exploring their sense of identity on a greater level than any group before them. From travelling back ‘home’ to discover more about your heritage, to actively researching your ‘origin story’ via DIY ancestry kits. Culture and identity has never meant more. In recent years, it feels as if there’s been an awakening.
There is a joke that many from the diaspora will be familiar with: “outside might be Britain, but in this house, this is Africa”.
By living in ‘Africa’ for most of our lives – while residing in Britain – it’s only normal we become inquisitive about who we really are. The generations before us may have ‘left’ but we have been gravitating towards ‘going back’ in order to answer that very question. Just recently, we’ve seen multiple Premier League players such as Antonio Rüdiger and Callum Hudson-Odoi go to their parents’ countries of origin for respite, as well as an opportunity to connect with their roots.
When I was younger, the only references to my identity were what I could see right in front of me at home. It was eating native meals like Pounded Yam and Egusi, knowing that my school dinner ladies wouldn’t know what those dishes were. It was hearing our mums switching between African dialects and English interchangeably on the phone to relatives. But today, we now have cultural references to our heritage everywhere. ‘Africa’ no longer solely lives behind our front doors. When I think of recent moments in history that have helped to create this culture shift, it only reaffirms this feeling.
Globally, we’ve seen the rise of Afrobeats to become one of the most popping genres in music. With the likes of Wizkid and Davido making waves way beyond Nigeria. We’ve seen the evolution of Nollywood to become one of the most exciting genres in filmmaking. In the UK, we have seen the birth of Afro-Swing fusing British culture with African heritage. From John Boyega to Skepta, we’ve seen some of our most influential creatives discuss and embrace their identities on a public stage.
Even more importantly, within a football context we’ve seen African footballers be routinely recognised for their contributions to the beautiful game. It was 2016 when Mahrez became the first ever African player to win PFA Player of the Year. Right now, Mo Salah is arguably the best player in the world. Sadio Mané has just written himself into footballing history by leading Senegal to their first ever AFCON victory. Last year, Asisat Oshoala became the first African woman to lift the Women’s Champions League trophy. Players of African heritage are being given their flowers on the world’s biggest stages. Yet, in those same few years we’ve also seen countless examples of racism that blatantly contradict these celebratory moments and milestones. You only have to look so far back as the Euro 2020 final to understand what’s meant by this.
A moment of history Black and diaspora talent helped to bring about, but resulted in those exact players being racially abused for missing penalties.
What those three young, Black players experienced in that one moment, highlighted the lived experiences of millions – especially those living with dual nationality in this country. In a single instance, you can go from being celebrated to being vilified. Forcing individuals, often born and raised in the UK, to ask the question: what does it mean to be British? Or worse, will I ever be ‘seen’ as British?
Why wouldn’t players want to be appreciated and respected for ‘who’ they are? Why wouldn’t they want their heritage and identity to be celebrated? Being respected during the ‘highs and lows’ – as well as a strong desire to truly understand your identity – is why I believe ‘homecomings’ will become even more popular. And this year’s AFCON was a great example of that.
The Super Eagles may have bowed out from the tournament in quick fashion, but one noticeable difference was the youthfulness of the squad and the new influx of diaspora talent. Six players born outside of Nigeria represented the nation. The most ever.
Goalkeeper Maduka Okoye and skipper William Troost-Ekong were both eligible to represent Holland, with the latter doing so at youth level before choosing the West African nation. Ola Aina represented England from U16 to U20 but opted to represent Nigeria for his senior international career. Semi Ajayi of West Brom was publicly linked with an England call-up just last season before deciding to represent the Green and Whites. And there are still players who haven’t decided who they’ll represent on the international stage. Ademola Lookman was recently cleared by FIFA to represent Nigeria, with Michael Olise still a major target for the Nigerian Football Federation – despite being eligible to don the Three Lions.
It makes you ask the question, with such a star-studded tournament now wrapped up, could the next iteration of AFCON see even more diaspora talent? Could Ghana draw in the likes of Hudson-Odoi and Tariq Lamptey following Chris Hughton’s appointment as a Technical Director? Or could we see older ballers follow in the footsteps of Wilfried Zaha and Steven Caulker, changing alliances despite making appearances for other nations? My answer is yes. Now more than ever.
AFCON showed that it is one of the best tournaments in global football. The level was competitive, the fans were amazing, and there were outstanding performances from future world class players you might not have even heard of before last month. The buzz surrounding AFCON was palpable, and it even felt at times those who were critics of the tournament previously, now understand the elite level of talent on display. If you were to add some more of the star-studded names ‘Diaspora FC’ has to offer, AFCON could – and should – stand toe-to-toe with the Euros.
When you look at France’s last two World Cup winning sides, you marvel at the strength in depth and the diversity of backgrounds on display. It would not be a stretch to call these teams ‘Africa United’ due to strong African representation.
However, both teams existed as massive ‘What Ifs?’. What if Zidane represented Algeria? What if Vieira played for Senegal? Some of Africa’s greatest stars did not play for their home nations. Yet we have seen some real superstars hail from the continent at large. Imagine a scenario where all talent – if eligible to do so – came ‘home’. Could we see African teams emulate their European counterparts if they had the full strength of their potential squads? We are moving into a time where that question might not need to be asked for much longer.
Some might be quick to argue that players have always opted to play for the ‘stronger’ footballing nation but FIFA rankings only hold so much power over players’ decisions. While others might be quick to raise questions surrounding ‘Godfather culture’ and the removal of it from footballing decisions. But international football is no longer about representing the ‘best’ team. It’s about representing the team that best represents you.
‘Diaspora FC’ is a real thing. We have always known that football is more than just a game. We have also known that representing any team comes with a great sense of pride. The desire for this pride to be ‘pure’ just means we could really see a shift in representation that we have not seen before and possibly, an evolution in the quality of international football as a byproduct.
“It’s no longer about representing the ‘best’ team. It’s about representing the team that best represents you.”
It’s time to come home.