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Inaki Williams, Tariq Lamptey et al: Are diaspora-born players assets or opportunists?

The decisions of Williams, Lamptey and three others to switch their international allegiances to Ghana have been a polarising subject, especially with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon

Reactions as Inaki Williams dumps Spain for Black Stars of Ghana

On Tuesday, the Ghana FA announced the news a lot of Ghanaian football fans had been waiting to hear: international switches had been secured for five diaspora-born players to turn out for the Black Stars.

The headline names were Athletic Club striker Inaki Williams and Brighton wing-back Tariq Lamptey, both of whom have had a long flirtation with Ghana. Nevertheless, in Stephan Ambrosius, Ransford Yeboah and Patric Pfeiffer, there were some lesser-heralded but no less interesting options, all out of Germany, to bolster Otto Addo's options with the World Cup on the horizon.

The reaction to this has not been unanimous one way or the other.

For some, the announcement has been viewed as overwhelmingly positive and a step in the right direction; for others, it is the opposite: a symptom of all that is wrong with the administration of African football.

So which side has it right? To try to answer that, let us examine both arguments on their own merits. (Despite the vehemence with which the two sides defend their position, there is merit on both sides, as well as a great deal of nuance.)

The prosecution argues that the timing of these players’ decisions is extremely convenient, being that the World Cup is less than six months away. Why, if they were committed to Ghana, has it taken them this long to make themselves available for selection? Also, their addition to the pool will almost certainly come at the expense of some who were part of the qualification process.

Essentially, this opposition is anchored on two things: nationalistic pride and loyalty. It may seem a little quaint, but there is something to be said for players who have been with the team through thick and thin, and on whose backs passage to the World Cup was earned. Also, seeing a player like, say, Williams who, in the past, was unequivocal about his Spanish feeling and identity, allowed in at his convenience (and when it has become obvious he is unlikely to be called up for the Spain national team) seems like a slap in the face, like having his cake and eating it too.

No one likes to feel like second choice, and no one likes to be taken for a ride. The sense is that decamping at this time is simply with a view to using the World Cup (and, by implication, the national team) to boost their stature and profile.

There is also the allegation that looking to players born in the diaspora is part of a culture of neglect toward the local leagues and players, who invariably are made to feel inherently inferior to their dual-national counterparts.

For the defence, however, the rationale is simple. Any prospect of improving the quality available to the national team selectors is a welcome one, and to fail to take advantage of it would be prideful and negligent.

Whatever one feels, Williams is a significant upgrade on what the Black Stars have going for themselves upfront. For the two-legged World Cup qualifying play-off against Nigeria in March, Addo fielded 19-year-old Felix Afena-Gyan upfront. For all his obvious talent, he has started six matches in his senior club career, only one more than he has managed at international level.

If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Williams, with over 300 appearances for Athletic Club, comes with a lot more experience, both in terms of minutes and competitive level.

Lamptey is one of the most exciting wing-backs in the world, with stupendous pace being his major calling card. Denis Odoi and Andy Yiadom simply do not stack up alongside, with respect to their Black Stars contributions to this point.

As part of their rebuttal, the defence also argues that no one should have the door closed on them on account of where they were born. It is a factor outside of their control, and so if they are willing and able to represent the country of their ancestry, they should not be discriminated against.

Of course, these simplistic summaries of the opposing points of view do not capture all of the talking points, but they are nevertheless good distillations. So, again, which side has it right?

The answer: neither and both.

If that feels like a cop-out, it is because the nuance of it all is lost on you. It is a lot more complex than simply picking a side.

In the first place, what exactly is the nature of identity? Is it simply a matter of feeling; determined by geography; a factor of progeniture? What does it mean?

Not an easy question to answer, is it?

If, as in the case of Williams until very recently, a player born abroad feels ‘Spanish’ (or any other nationality, for that matter), is that so surprising? That is, after all, the environment in which they were raised and within which their footballing education has taken place. Should it be held against them?

If we agree that a person cannot help where they is born, we can also agree that they cannot help the culture in which they grow. For a lot of dual nationality players, Africa is little more than a collage of scattered stories told by their parents now and again. Why is it any surprise that they feel no instinctive, initial attachment to the country their parents emigrated from? And if we can understand this, is it beyond reason that they might need some convincing? (It can also be argued that there is a restitutionary aspect to trying to woo these players, but that is a thornier, heftier facet to the discussion.)

The neglect of the local scene is also something of a red herring, as it is not zero-sum: being committed to the development of the leagues and seeking to tie down the best the diaspora has to offer are not mutually exclusive aims. While it is sometimes the case that these two approaches are at variance, causality is neither provable nor inevitable. Taking administrators to task for not doing the former should not necessitate demonising the latter, and the corollary to this argument – that the national team should be used to grow the league – is so dim that there is little point to addressing it here.

That is not to say that recruiting high-quality diaspora-born players does not come with risk. Their quality notwithstanding, there are legitimate concerns over their commitment and their understanding of what it means to wear the shirt. It can be communicated if the player is willing to learn it, as in the case of Odoi, who made his international debut at the age of 32 against Nigeria in March. More often than not, though, it is something you have to have lived.

In addition, being able to change one’s mind and be accepted into the fold regardless of previous statements and leaning can create the impression of invincibility, leading to arrogance. One has only to look at the pathetic case of Kevin-Prince Boateng to understand the pitfalls there.

There should be some consideration for those who have credit in the bank in terms of working with the national team, even if only in affording them a bit leeway. It would send the wrong message, and could ultimately be inimical to team spirit, if the defenestration of players used during the qualifiers became standard practice.

However, and this is important: it is only by constantly seeking upgrades that the team can improve competitively. Being beholden to a group of players to the extent of ignoring glaring holes in the squad composition can have detrimental effects, especially at a level such as the World Cup.

If the trade-off is that a player uses the national team to his own benefit, how much of a problem is that provided value flows in the other direction? To bring up the Kevin-Prince example again, his behaviour since has been reprehensible and puerile, but no one can, in good faith, claim he was not an asset to the team at the 2010 World Cup.

Again, it all comes down to balance and nuance. There is no absolutely correct answer.

What is needed here is the sort of understanding that sparks necessary compromise. Perhaps a time restriction on how long a player should be courted? A requirement for them to make the conciliatory overtures in the event of outright rejection in the past? There should be rules, but none so rigid that it would amount to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

In the absence of visionary leadership and infrastructural development, if African teams are to make a mark on the global stage, these diaspora-born players will, as a matter of necessity, play a part. We can run from it, kick against it, and thump the badge on the chest. Or we can embrace it for the advantage(s) it could bring, install fail-safes to forestall exploitation, and go from there.

What is clear, though, is that the never-ending tension and absolutism help no one.

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