Africa tug-of-war over top talent

JOHANNESBURG - Africa's tug-of-war with European powers over young football talent has taken a new twist after France named a player for international duty who only last week was called up by Mali. French-born forward Sambou Yatabare was included on Monday in France's under-21 squad for the annual Toulon tournament, a week after Mali named him in their squad for two World Cup qualifiers in June.

It reflects the demand on an up-and-coming new generation of Europe-born talent of African descent.

A second generation of children born to immigrants, whose football schooling in Europe gave them an edge over their African peers, is becoming the bedrock of many African sides, notably those once colonised by France.

Starting with the Senegal side which reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002, more and more African countries are looking to Europe for ready-made international-class talent, creating a tug of the heart strings.

The 20-year-old Yatabare, who reportedly attracted attention from English clubs during his debut season in Ligue 1 with Caen, is the latest choosing between his country of birth and land of his forefathers having seemingly committed to both.

As the Toulon tournament is not an official FIFA competition, Yatabare could yet play for Mali's senior side in the future as long as he applies to FIFA for a nationality switch before his 21st birthday.

Mali picked him after a recent visit to Europe by coach Stephen Keshi.

While he thought he had been successful in convincing Yatabare, his overtures to another French under-21 international, who has also been selected for the Toulon tournament from June 3-12, proved inconclusive.

TIME NEEDED

Toulouse midfielder Moussa Sissoko told the Mali coach he needed time to consider playing either for Mali or France.

Keshi also visited Aly Cissokho, the French-born left back who impressed in this season's UEFA Champions League for Portugal's Porto. He hoped to persuade him to commit to a potential international career with Mali.

"But he told me that he was not Malian," Keshi told reporters on his return.

For years, talented players have struggled over the choice with Africa winning a few skirmishes but also losing out on other eligible talent.

One example of success for Africa is teenage striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who in February played for France at under-21 level in a friendly match and six weeks later was scoring for Gabon on his debut in a World Cup qualifier.

Aubameyang is a special case given his father and elder brother also played for Gabon but it took more than a year of persuasion before he decided his international future was African rather than with the country of his birth.

But others, like Arsenal's Bakary Sagna, Lassana Diarra of Real Madrid and Manchester United's Danny Welbeck have slipped from the continent's grasp.

Welbeck's parents hail from Ghana, who have battled for two years to persuade him to play for them. But it is increasingly likely the 18-year-old is destined for an England cap.