In this World Cup, nationality is a fluid concept

More than 130 players at the World Cup represent a country other than the one of their birth. Some of them got engaged just a few months before the World Cup.

DOHA, Qatar — Bryan Mbeumo wasn’t sure why he got the invite, but he knew it wasn’t one to turn down. The chance to meet Samuel Eto’o, one of the best strikers of his generation and one of the best African players in football history, doesn’t come along every day.

Mbeumo is a 23-year-old striker emerging as a force for Brentford, a featherweight club in England that somehow thrives among the Premier League heavyweights. Eto’o, by contrast, ranks as a “football legend in general,” Mbeumo said. When they met for dinner in London this year, Mbeumo was nervous.

It turned out that it was Eto’o who needed to make a good impression. He had recently won election as president of the Cameroonian football federation and was touring Europe to try to persuade players of Cameroonian descent to switch their footballing allegiance to the country’s national team. Mbeumo, who he qualified through his father, was at the top of his list.

“When he first approached me, I didn’t know if he was going to go or not,” Mbeumo said. “But after talking to him, he explained about the project to me and I was happy with him. It gave me a little time to think about it before making my decision, and then I decided to play for them.”

Mbeumo, born in Avallon, in the heart of France, is not unique. There are more than 130 players at the World Cup who represent a country other than the one of his birth, an illustration of the growing complexity of defining nationality and identity in an increasingly interconnected and transplanted world.

There are players who were born in one country and moved to another as a child, such as Raheem Sterling, who spent his early years in Jamaica but long ago chose to represent England internationally. There are those, like Xherdan Shaqiri from Switzerland, who were resettled as refugees and chosen to play for the country where they built their lives.

There are some, like Nicola Zalewski from Poland, who were born in one place, Italy in his case, to parents who moved from another place. And there are many, like Mbeumo, who can trace their roots through a single parent or even a grandparent, and for whom their chosen nationality functions as a connection to previous generations.

What makes Mbeumo’s case a little more unusual is the timing. He made his debut for Cameroon in September. Just weeks later, Rigobert Song, the country’s national team coach, named him to his World Cup squad, one of half a dozen newly created binationals whose international careers began just months before the tournament.

In such cases, there tends to be a lingering smell of “opportunism,” said Raoul Savoy, a Swiss-born coach who has spent two decades working in Africa. “Suddenly some players are saying they have a country in their heart, when they have never talked about it before,” said Savoy, who is currently in charge of the Central African Republic national team. “It can be a divisive issue.”

It is no less delicate for the players, not only for those who have been trying to get to the World Cup for years only to be inundated at the last moment with possible replacements, but also for the replacements themselves, who have the task of putting together a squad of potential teammates. but immediate rivals.

“It can be dangerous to get new players,” said Otto Addo, the Ghana coach. “Especially if the players who were already there achieved something really good. There’s a group dynamic that you don’t want to break.”

Like Cameroon, Ghana has seen its ranks swell thanks to imports over the past year: five members of Addo’s team in Qatar, including Brighton defender Tariq Lamptey and Athletic Bilbao player Iñaki Williams, were born in somewhere else but have chosen, in recent months, to compromise. his international careers to the country of birth of his parents.

There have, of course, been doubts about the purity of his motives. “I know some people say they’ve come for the World Cup, but honestly we’ll never know,” said André Ayew, the Ghana captain. “But if they have the right heart, the right determination to die for the team, we’re going to open every door we have to make them feel comfortable.”

Asamoah Gyan, a striker who was born in Accra, Ghana, and represented the country at the 2010 World Cup, wondered what would come after the tournament. “Afterwards, they should still be available, because this is not a national team participating in a tournament,” he said. “Once you have been naturalized for Ghana, you must be fully committed.”

The players themselves have done what they could to dispel those doubts. Lamptey, born in England to Ghanaian parents, has set up a foundation that works with children in Nuaso, north of Accra. Williams, whose parents left Ghana while her mother was pregnant with him, spent time with his grandparents in the country over the summer.

Those efforts helped persuade fans that his affinity is genuine. They have had to adopt other methods to reassure their peers. When he first joined the Ghana team for a friendly with Brazil in September, Williams leaned heavily on the few friends he found.

The chance to represent Ghana, he said, was “an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.” Although he has spent his entire life in Spain, to the point that his younger brother Nico is also here in Qatar, but dressed in Spanish red instead of Ghanaian white, he felt a connection to the country not only through his parents. , but his grandparents too.

“Ghana and Africa are important to me,” he said after making his debut for the country as a substitute in the match against Brazil. His mind, he said, turned to his relatives in Ghana as he entered the camp, his pride rooted in him not so much in how much it meant to him but how much it would mean to them.

However, he knew that his “big chance” of his would probably mean the loss of someone else. “I can’t forget all the people who put Ghana on top,” he said. “They gave everything to take Ghana to the World Cup.” He saw his work as building on that.

The players he knew before joining Addo’s team helped him get over that tension, that feeling that he was a disruptor, an intruder. He knew Thomas Partey and Joseph Aidoo from domestic football in Spain. “They helped me get settled in,” he said. They also knew how much Ghana meant to him.

None of that meant, however, that he could escape the modern version of football’s ancient initiation ritual: being forced to perform some sort of music revue for his teammates, with the results immediately posted on social media. . “I danced for them,” he said, smiling broadly.

Those moments, his coach admitted, smoothed out what can be a tense process. “We have a successful group,” Addo said. “It is not easy to integrate new players. They only had a few days together in the field, but they all did very well. They get along well with each other. And many of them are not strangers.

But more importantly, according to Ayew, the Ghana captain, is a deeper form of shared history. He was also born in France. He really never had any choice but to play for Ghana, as his father, Abedi Pele, was the best player in the country. He means he knows that regardless of when a player decides on his international allegiance, what matters most is his sincerity.

“The fact that they consider themselves Ghanaian, that they are ready to play for Ghana,” he said of Williams, Lamptey and the others, “means they are welcome.”

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