THE just-ended Euro 2016 championship staged in France, was with a difference. The tournament designed for European countries has now been spiced with African flavour as witnessed at France 2016.
This development signposts the sheer brilliance of black players in the world’s most followed sport, football and a message that players irrespective of their origin especially from the third world countries could make things happen on the field of play.
Prior to the June 10 kick off of the championship, the fear of crowd violence was palpable and the reasons were not far-fetched.
The hosts had Paris attacks to battle with while no fewer than 15 terror attacks were foiled before the Euro 2016, a development which constituted a major threat to the hosting of the tournament.
As a result of this, the organisers ensured effective security with the deployment of 90,000 security forces for the tournament, as president Francois Hollande said that the threat of attacks will not stop the Euro 2016 from being successful.
However, six English fans caught for violence were later jailed (between one and three months) and banned for two years from France after some opening games at Euro 2016 and after that, it was all fun throughout the fiesta, as the security personnel were on top of the situation.
Talk of the power of sport, terrorists could not but savour the beauty of football which is an instrument of international unity as they perhaps ceased fire to enjoy Euro 2016.
Unarguably, the presence of players of African roots added colour to the championship which was introduced in 1960.
Statistics revealed that no fewer than 44 players of African descent were paraded by European countries in the one-month fiesta. Also, half of the 24 countries paraded at least one player of African roots at the glamorous championship.
France dominated the list of naturalised players with no fewer than 11 men who were of African heritage excluding Reunion’s Dimitri Payet on parade. It was not the first time the Les Bleus will parade a Euro-Afro team at a major tournament given the assemblage of the squad which won the 1998 World Cup referred to as “black, blanc, beur” composition.
The eventual winner of Euro 2016, Portugal coached by Fernando Santos also had six players of African roots on parade.
Interestingly, Congo DR topped the list of suppliers of players with nine men, while Nigeria and Cape Verde had five players each.
Congo DR still seeking relevance in African football save for its huge achievement in African club side championship in recent times had players who played for three countries.
They were Jason Denayer, Christian Kabasele, Jordan Lukaku, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke who all played for Belgium, while the new Crystal Palace goalkeeper, Steve Mandanda and Manchester City’s Eliaquim Mangala starred for the hosts, France as Denis Zakaria was on duty for Switzerland at Euro 2016.
Nigeria, which is also battling to regain its lost pride in African football after missing the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations and the forthcoming 2017 AFCON, had five players who played for five European teams.
Dele Alli led the legion starring for The Three Lions of England as David Alaba and Rubin Okotie donned the colours of Austria, Angelo Ogbonna played for Italy, while Thomas Robson-Kanu was among the heroes who took Wales to a respectable quarter-final finish, even after England failed to go beyond the second round.
Though, many Nigerian soccer fans were unperturbed by the absence of these fivesome in the Super Eagles of today, as some of the Euro-based players of Nigerian roots are in the current team such as goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong and Alex Iwobi, among others.
Cape-Verde shares the second spot record with Nigeria as it also produced five players at the championship.
Four of the players from the emerging African football force, Cape Verde however, have become kinsmen of Cristiano Ronaldo as they joined forces with the three-time Ballon d’Or award winner to make history with the Selecao of Portugal, on Sunday, July 10, when they stunned hosts by a lone goal at Stade de France.
The quartet led by former Manchester United star, Nani also had Eliseu, Joao Mario and Renato Sanches, while the last Cape Verdean, Gelson Fernandez starred for Switzerland.
Cameroon, the once dreaded African champion had the trio of Breel Embolo (Switzerland), François Moubandje (Switzerland) and Samuel Umtiti (France) as Senegal had Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna who aided France to the final day outing as well Leroy Sane, who played for Germany.
Mali too had Moussa Dembele (Belgium) Ngolo Kante (France) and Moussa Sissoko (France) as Morocco produced Marouane Fellaini who played for Belgium and Adil Rami for France.
Angola had William Carvalho (Portugal) and Blaise Matuidi (France) as the Ivory Coast had Johan Djourou (Switzerland) and Jonathan Tah (Germany).
Struggling Kenya on the continent had Martin Olsson (Sweden) and Divock Origi (Belgium).
Unknown to many, the man who decided the final on July 10 at Stade de France, Eder, is of Guinee-Bissau origin. Eder, who came on as a substitute hit the headlines with his 109th goal which broke the jinx for Portugal as the Euro title served as the country’s major silverware ever. Interestingly, Eder, a former Swansea striker also had a kinsman in the Portuguese team, Danilo Pereira who hailed from Guinee-Bissau as well.
African countries which also participated at Euro 2016 by proxy were Egypt who had Stephan El Shaarawy of Italy); Ethiopia’s Theodor Gebre Selassie (Czech Rep); Ghanaian Jerome Boateng (Germany); Guinean Paul Pogba (France); Tunisian Sami Khedira (Germany) and Tanzania’s Marcus Rashford who starred for England.
Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) midfielder, Blaise Matuidi who grew up in France with his four siblings defended his action to shun his fatherland, Angola.
“I had to make a difficult choice to opt for the French team,” he said in 2014. “I have never forgotten my Angolan roots. I attached great importance to them, especially as I still have family there.
“I went there once during the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations tournament that was organised there and I really enjoyed the welcome. They are proud of my career there. If I am French, I feel just as Angolan.”
Also, Ederzito Antonio Macedo Lopes known as Eder, who scored the Euro 2016 historic goal moved to Portugal as a child from Guinea-Bissau where he started his career with FC Oliveira Hospital and later G.D. Tourizense, Academica de Coimbra before he hits the headlines with Braga FC. The 28-year-old forward now plays for French Ligue 1 side, Lille FC.
On the day Eder became a hero, he played as a second-half substitute for young star Renato Sanches and even told his coach, Santos that he was going to score before his introduction which came to pass. Perhaps, Eder’s self-confidence became Portugal’s gain in the epic final.
“When he came on, he told me he would score. The ugly duckling went and scored. Now he’s a beautiful swan,” said Santos, the Selecao handler.
Another remarkable lesson of Euro 2016 is the spirit of sportsmanship exhibited by the hosts after Les Bleus dream of reclaiming the title they last won in 2000 was dashed.
The scenario outside the stadium was worthy of emulation by football fans across the globe as no single case of crowd violence was recorded or attack on any fan of Portugal.
The icing on the cake of Euro 2016 championship remains the drama between a 10-year-old fan of Portugal and a supporter of France on their way out of Stade de France after the final whistle.
The man was in tears after the game while an elated Portugal fan (Mathis) in his country’s colours moved in and consoled the elder fan to stop crying. The brief drama sketch, by sheer providence has earned the obedient France fan who is yet to be identified an all-expense paid trip to Portugal by the country’s tourism board.
“Tourism Portugal has launched an appeal to find the France supporter and invite him to visit Portugal,” the board said in a statement.
It also added that in comforting his supposed rival, Mathis had “communicated the intense emotions of the final and demonstrated the way to be friendly, tolerant and authentically Portuguese.”
What a European championship for African players! Will the world witness such an European championship of African flavour again? Only time will tell.