The 2016 European Championship is set to light up the northern hemisphere summer as the continent’s best battle for what is the second biggest prize in world football.
A new, expanded format will see the number of teams compete in France raised from 16 to 24, providing more football for the watching world and more opportunities for players with African roots to shine.
It is a great irony that at the highest level of European football, many teams will rely heavily on players of African descent for success.
Some were born in Africa, while others have ties to the continent through their immigrant parents, but have decided to wear the colors of the country in which they were raised.
Many were cast into European life when their families fled violence, poverty and famine, and have little or no feeling towards a continent that they have not lived in. But this is not the case for all.
The reality for many players is that the chances of being successful in a World Cup are greater with a European nation, and the financial rewards far outweigh those of competing for an African team.
It has not been an easy decision for many players and some have faced prejudice for it in the land of their birth.
Such has been the success of players of African descent in France that in 2011 reports emerged that a quota of no more than 30% black players would be allowed in academies feeding into the national team. This caused outrage, and was denied by the French Football Federation, but shows the influence of the African player on the European game.
France’s strong ties to West and North Africa make it an obvious leader in this arena, but players of African descent are popping up in the national teams of Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Sweden.
Veteran French defender Patrice Evra will likely have his international swansong at the Championships on home soil, despite being born in Dakar to a Senegalese father and Cape Verdean mother. He reveals how his decision to play for France, where he spent much of his formative years, made him a target back in Senegal.
“I grew up amid a Senegalese culture at home,” he told reporters. “But we became westernized very quickly and when I had to choose between playing for Senegal or France my father told me to follow my heart.”
“I opted for France, as that was where I had grown up, but I then came in for lots of abuse in Senegal. I was called a monkey who grovels before the white man and labelled a money-obsessed traitor to the nation. But my parents helped me get through it.”
His national teammate, goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, was born in Kinshasa but turned his back on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to play for France.
That, ironically, allowed his brother Parfait, who was born in France and is also a goalkeeper, to play international football for the DRC.
Stade Rennes winger Paul-Georges Ntep is part of the latest generation, seen as a rising star of French football but was born in Cameroon. He moved to Paris at the age of eight to live with an aunt and turned down numerous overtures from the Indomitable Lions to play for them before he was awarded his first French cap last year.
Another player also chased for a long time was Leicester City midfielder N’Golo Kanté, who was born in Paris to Malian parents. He admits he chose France purely for the opportunity to play in the European Championships.
“It’s a chance to play the Euro in France,” he said. “Regarding Mali, for a while, it’s true they contacted me. It was not necessarily an easy choice to make. But I chose the France team.”
It is likely that as much as 60% of France’s squad at Euro 2016 will be made up of players either born in, or with parents from, Africa.
Belgium, who are perhaps the most open of all European nations to immigrants, have seen their national team briefly perched on top of the FIFA World Rankings this year with a meteoric rise on the back of, it’s fair to say, their players of African descent.
Star striker Romelu Lukaku was born in Belgium where his father Roger, a Zaire international, was playing. His brother Jordan also plays for Belgium.
Lukaku’s major rival for a starting place in the Belgium line-up is Christian Benteke, who was born in Kinshasa but whose family fled to Belgium during the reign of Mobutu Sese Seko.
The same can be said for the parents of Vincent Kompany, who, injury-willing, will be leading Belgium at the finals, while Divock Origi, like Benteke a forward at Liverpool, was born in Belgium where his father Mike, a Kenyan international, was playing for KV Oostende.
Origi had seriously considered a future with Kenya even as his star was on the rise in Europe, but in the end a mixture of factors drove him towards playing for Belgium.
“I remember at that time there was some stand-off between the league and federation. He read about that stuff and it really put him off,” his father Mike told journalists.
“But obviously there were other issues, like playing at the Euros or World Cup for a big national team in Europe.”
“Nevertheless, Divock is a Kenyan with a Belgium passport. He speaks fluent Kiswahili, comes to Kenya often and enjoys Kenyan food the most.”
Tottenham Hotspur youngster Dele Alli, the toast of English football, has a Nigerian father Kenny, who claims his son is actually a prince in the Yoruba tribe that makes up about 20% of the country’s population.
Another young English star, Ross Barkley of Everton, has a Nigerian grandfather and was courted by that country before pinning his colours to the England mast.
Experienced Swiss international Johan Djourou, born in the Ivory Coast, says he feels lucky to have “escaped” playing for an African nation, even if he feels strong roots in the land of his birth.
“When you are in Africa there are a lot more difficulties and I was lucky enough to escape that. Other players like [Ivory Coast internationals] Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré have made it through there but when you are European you have more options.”
Not all players born in Europe have opted to represent countries from that continent though. The likes of Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Yannick Bolasie (DRC) and the toast of European football, Leicester City playmaker Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), have all chosen to represent the land of their parents despite being born outside of those countries.