By Mark Gleeson
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Africa’s direct interest in the World Cup ended disappointingly early in the first round in Russia but with France having 14 players with roots on the continent there is little doubt which side Africans will be backing in Sunday’s World Cup final.
France’s progress to the deciding game in Moscow against Croatia has kept alive interest for Africa with the diverse and multi-cultured French squad not only representing the heterogeneity of the country but also an African diaspora that is a hotbed of footballing talent.
“The diversity of the squad is in the image of this beautiful country that is France,” midfielder Blaise Matuidi, born in Toulouse to an Angolan father and a Congolese mother, said on Friday.
“For us, it's superb. We are proud to represent this beautiful jersey and I think the people are also proud to have a national team like that.”
Not only do emigrant communities supply a significant number of players to national teams across Europe but African nations also benefit, having been able to boost their talent pools by assiduously courting players from the diaspora.
Often there is a battle of the heartstrings as African football authorities go head to head with European federations for the loyalty of a player born in Europe but with African roots, and they will regard many of those playing in Sunday’s final as talent that has slipped through their hands.
Paul Pogba’s elder twin brothers play for Guinea but their younger sibling, born in the suburbs of Paris, was just 20 when France handed him a first cap, thereby tying him to their cause. FIFA permits player to switch international allegiance only before they have played a competitive senior international.
Cameroon sent famed striker Roger Milla to try to persuade Samuel Umtiti to play for them. He was born in Yaounde but moved to France at an early age and came up through the French junior national teams.
Back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda is the other African-born member of France’s squad at the World Cup and has a brother who has kept goal for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rest of the squad with African connections are French-born to parents from Algeria, Angola, Congo, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
Close links between French and African football go back some 80 years. Senegalese Raoul Diagne played in the 1938 World Cup and later became a deputy in the French assembly, as well as the first coach of independent Senegal.
Just Fontaine, whose tally of 13 goals in the 1958 finals remains a World Cup record, came from Morocco and Zinedine Zidane, arguably the greatest French footballer, was born in Marseille to Algerian parents.
He was the hero of France’s World Cup-winning team 20 years ago whose success was hailed as a powerful and inspiring rejection of racism in French society.
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Clare Fallon)