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Soccer News of Thursday, 30 November 2006

Source: Mark Gleeson

Tussle for talent between Africa and Europe

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 29 (Reuters) - The increasing emergence of talented, young footballers who have their roots in Africa but have been schooled in Europe is creating friction between the two continents.

African and European countries are jostling to persuade several prodigious players to commit their international futures to their respective causes, in most cases causing an emotive pull on the heart strings.

In recent weeks there have been accusations of underhand dealings and a growing animosity as countries turn up the pressure for the best talent.

Ibrahim Afellay of PSV Eindhoven, for example, is the subject of a tense tussle between Morocco and the Netherlands.

The promising midfielder, born in the Netherlands to immigrant parents, has played for the Dutch at junior level but can still, before his 21st birthday in April, opt to play for Morocco.

FIFA regulations allow players with dual nationality to change their international allegiance before the age of 21 if they have not won a full international cap.

Afellay recently told Dutch television he was still undecided despite persistent wooing by Netherlands coach Marco van Basten and his Moroccan counterpart Mohamed Fakhir.


Earlier this month, PSV accused the Moroccan federation of seeking to sway Afellay and the 18-year-old Ismail Aissati to their cause with generous offers of cash.

"The Moroccan federation have let it been known they will do anything to get these youngsters on their side," Afellay's agent Ed van Stijn told the Voetbal International magazine on Nov. 8.

The Dutch have also been involved in two other high-profile cases with young African talent. Their bid to entice Salomon Kalou was thwarted by their own government, who refused the Ivorian striker a passport ahead of this year's World Cup finals.

They missed out on Amsterdam-born prodigy Mbark Boussoufa, who enthusiastically opted to play for Morocco in May. The Anderlecht midfielder is now a regular in the north Africans' line-up.

France moved swiftly last month to cap two other talents who had both been called up by African countries.

Habib Bellaid and Issiar Dia are French-born but have roots in Tunisia and Senegal respectively and were invited by them to play in African Nations Cup qualifiers in October.

Instead they featured for the French under-21 side in recent matches against Israel and Sweden.

Nancy striker Dia, 19, told France Football last week that he was still keeping open his options.


Bellaid, who played for Racing Strasbourg in Ligue 2, said he still held out hopes of playing for Tunisia where his parents had returned in recent years.

"But I had to honour the call-up from the French coach out of respect for my club and for my coaches," the 20-year-old told Tunisian reporters.

Players whose formative training has been in Europe are highly regarded by African federations eager to boost their competitiveness in the world arena.

European-born players in African national teams are no new phenomenon.

When Algeria played France in a friendly at the Stade de France in 2001, there were as many players born in France on Algeria's side as there were in the French team.

Algeria have been trying to persuade Watford surprise package Hameur Bouazza to join their cause while Moroccan newspapers have in recent weeks highlighted the emergence of 17-year-old Ibrahim Maaroufi, who recently made his debut at Serie A champions Inter Milan.

He was brought up in Brussels and joined Inter from the youth structures of PSV Eindhoven. "The (Belgian) national coach (Rene Vandereycken) came to see me in Milan," Maaroufi said earlier this month. "He said he is counting on me in the future."

Nigeria's interest in Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor is likely to speed up a possible England cap for the striker in the New Year.

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