What If: The Best French Players Who Don’t Play For France

Although the men’s World Cup seems like it was yesterday, it’s time for international squads to focus on the major tournaments of next summer, including Euro 2020. Speaking of which, as I was watching a mediocre France team — at least, relative to the juggernaut from last summer — squeak past a spirited Iceland squad, the game brought to mind all the great French players who don’t play for France. (To be fair, this French team was missing Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and a likely breakout player for Euro 2020, Matteo Guendouzi, hasn’t really been integrated into the squad yet.)

In 2010, as told in the brilliant Netflix documentary on the France soccer teams, Les Bleus, Laurent Blanc got in trouble after he was caught on tape discussing a plan to cap the number of black and Arab hopefuls in the French soccer system, due to concerns about them defecting to their parents’ countries. As a dual national myself, I think it’s abhorrent that he would look to exclude dual nationals because of their heritage. But Blanc did raise an interesting conundrum faced by France, as well as other immigrant nations with strong soccer heritages, such as England and Germany. Many young players feel the pull of both their homes, i.e., France, and their homelands, i.e., the country from which their parents emigrated. (Of course, at the risk of stating the obvious, a much better way for Blanc, and other immigrant nations, to address this issue is simply to be welcoming to dual nationals and make them feel included just like any other player. England has done a great job of this.)

Without further ado, here is a (likely incomplete) list of some of the great current French players who don’t represent France.

  • Riyad Mahrez: The 2015–16 Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Players’ Player of the Year and a Premier League winner with Leicester City and Manchester City, Mahrez’s game just screams Paris. The amazing technical skills, the close control, the fearlessness are all hallmarks of a player who grew up playing in the rough concrete pitches of the capital city. Mahrez represents his parents’ country of Algeria. (Unlike some of his French-Algerian compatriots such as Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, as well as the all-time great Zinedine Zidane, who opted to represent France.)
  • Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: Aubameyang gets bonus points for having the last name that is most fun to pronounce out loud. He has a Gabonese father and a Spanish mother, but was born and raised in western France. Aubameyang was last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner with Arsenal. While he played for the French U21 team, he opted to represent Gabon at the senior level. His father was the Gabonese national team captain, so it’s understandable that he would feel the pull of the team.
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Two of the three finalists for 2016 African footballer of the year, Riyad Mahrez (center) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (right), were born and raised in France. Image: Getty
  • Nicolas Pépé: Another Gunner, Pépé recently joined Arsenal after scoring 22 goals for Lille the previous season (second in Ligue 1 only to Mbappe). Born and raised outside of Paris, he plays for the Ivory Coast national team. Given Olivier Giroud’s recent goal-scoring drought for Les Bleus (and struggles to get game time at the club level with Chelsea), French manager Didier Deschamps surely could use Pépé and Aubameyang.
  • Raphaël Guerreiro: Another Parisian, Guerreiro was born to a Portuguese father and a French mother. He plays for Portugal despite the fact that when he joined the Portugal team he barely spoke any Portuguese. He was nominated for Young Player of the Tournament in Euro 2016, which Portugal won — beating France, of all teams, in the final.
  • Yacine Brahimi: A fun player to watch and Porto’s 2017 Player of the Year. The native of Paris played for several France youth teams before switching to the Algeria national team. He probably was never good enough to play significant minutes for the France national team, but he’s an exciting player nonetheless.

The France national team could be deeper and even more talented if these French players played for the team. However, given the talent already on the team, as displayed at last year’s World Cup, perhaps there was some merit to Arsene Wenger’s response to the Blanc controversy. Wenger felt that the supposed problem of players defecting to other countries after receiving their football education in France was a red herring. He believed that it is only the players deemed not good enough for Les Bleus who choose to play elsewhere.

But some of the players on this list would definitely be an exception to that rule.

Born in the Bronx, raised in NJ, living in Harlem. BA from Harvard, MBA from Dartmouth, CFA. Dual citizen: USA & Jamaica, Finance & Soccer.

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