Africa: Five Afcon Stars Who Ditched Europe

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\n Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

\n Wilfried Zaha of Cote d’Ivoire, left, who plays for Crystal Palace in the English Premier League, is one of the big-name players who ditched Europe to compete at the 2017 Nations Cup finals in Gabon.

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It used to be that African-born players were clamouring to feature for European nations, with the continent losing a steady stream of stars that would otherwise bolster their national sides.

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But in the past five years or so the tide is turning, with many players ditching their ‘home’ nations in Europe to turn out for African countries – specifically in the African Nations Cup.

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allAfrica looks at five big-name players who have ditched Europe to compete at the 2017 Nations Cup finals in Gabon…

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WILFRIED ZAHA (ENGLAND TO IVORY COAST)

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Crystal Palace midfielder Wilfried Zaha actually played two full senior international games for England but was allowed to make the switch to the Ivory Coast by FIFA as they were both friendlies.

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England manager Gareth Southgate reportedly tried to get Saha to stay eligible for the country, but the 24-year-old instead opted for the land of his birth.

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His England caps came in 2012 and 2013 against Belgium and Sweden, after he had also featured for the Under-19 and Under-21 sides.

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Zaha was born in Abidjan, but moved to England with his eight siblings at the age of four.

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RACHID GHEZZAL (FRANCE TO ALGERIA)

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Ghezzal was born in Décines-Charpieu, France, and long stated his desire to play for the European team.

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He featured for the Under-20 side in 2013, having emerged as a star at Lyon, but the winger finally answered the call from Algeria two years later and made his debut in late 2015.

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In doing so, he was keeping it in the family as his older brother, Abdelkader Ghezzal, also born in Décines-Charpieu, had decided to represent Algeria as far back as 2008.

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Rachid, who has slotted in well to the Algerian set-up, is likely to be one of the players to watch in Gabon.

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KALIDOU KOULIBALY (FRANCE TO SENEGAL)

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Another player born in France, Koulibaly is the son of Senegalese immigrants and until 18 months ago looked as though he could be the next big thing for the French national team.

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But instead in September 2015 he opted to play for Senegal, despite overtures from France coach Didier Deschamps, who was eager to include him for Les Bleus.

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Koulibaly has gone on to become one of the hottest defensive properties in Europe and the Napoli star has been the subject of massive transfer interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

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He had previously represented France at Under-20 level but says he felt closer to the land of his parents.

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FRANCISCO JUNIOR (PORTUGAL TO GUINEA-BISSAU)

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Junior is part of the new wave of Guinea-Bissau players brought in by the country in recent years as they use their Lusophone connections in Europe to build a squad.

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The 24-year-old is a former Portugal Under-19 and Under-21 midfielder who was once tipped for the very top of the game after a spell training with Manchester City, and then playing for Everton.

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He was actually first called up for Guinea-Bissau in 2012 while still playing for the Portuguese junior national teams, but his switch of allegiance could not be completed in time.

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He played a few more times for the Portuguese Under-21s, resisting the advances of Guinea-Bissau before finally accepting in the build-up to the 2017 African Nations Cup finals.

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He currently plays for Norwegian side Strømsgodset.

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MARIO LEMINA (FRANCE TO GABON)         

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Lemina spent his formative years in France and for a while turned down the overtures of the Gabonese Football Federation as he tried to cut out at international career.

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He played for the French Under-20 and Under-21 sides while with Olympique Marseille in Ligue 1, after which he moved to Italian giants Juventus in 2015, initially on loan before making that move permanent at the start of this season.

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It was then he decided to throw in his lot with Gabon and accepted a call-up, scoring on his international debut against Tunisia in a 3-3 draw in October 2015.

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He played for Gabon in their 2017 Nations Cup opener against Guinea-Bissau on Saturday.

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