Postmortem on Nabil Fekir’s decision to pick France over Algeria

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A few months ago, Nabil Bentaleb spoke about his decision to play for the Algerian national team. Bentaleb explained, ‘When I was younger and I used to watch matches on TV and France lost, I didn’t cry. But when Algeria lost, I would cry for hours.’

In late February Nabil Fekir made a very different declaration. He said, ‘I’ll announce my decision (to play for a national team) at the end of March. I’ll choose what’s best for my career, there’s no such thing as a choice of the heart, or anything of the sort.’

On Friday March 13th, Nabil Fekir made one phone call and then received four. The first was from Fekir’s mobile phone to Christian Gourcuff, coach of the Algerian national team. According to the President of the Algerian Football Federation, Mohamed Raouraoua, Fekir told Gourcuff that he was ready to play for Algeria, and should the 59 year-old Breton call him up, he would respond ‘present’ for their two friendly matches against Qatar and Oman.

Upon this green light, Gourcuff quickly added Fekir’s name to a provisional list of 30 players, and released that list through the FAF’s website early Friday afternoon. Fekir’s call-up generated a social media sonic boom. Algerian fans rejoiced that a French-Algerian player with world-class potential had finally decided to play for the country of his parents over his country of birth.

But officials in French football reacted just as quickly, calling him immediately. The first phone call Fekir received was from Bernard Lacombe, advisor to the President of Olympique Lyonnais, Jean-Michel Aulas. The second call was made by Aulas, himself, who made it clear that a French international is worth more than an Algerian one. The third call came from Noel La Graët, President of the French Football Federation, who spoke to the young talent about his potential future in l’Hexagone. The fourth and final ring came from Jean-Paul Bernes, who is, arguably, the biggest football agent in France. Bernes does not represent Fekir, but he does represent Deschamps, and Algerian tabloids claim that he promised Fekir playing time on behalf of Deschamps. Predictably, the two came to an agreement on player representation just a week later.

The barrage of incoming phone calls worked, as a few hours after Fekir called Gourcuff expressing his willingness to play for Les Fennecs, he re-dialled, apologized, and explained that he had not yet made a decision.

Suffice to say Raouraoua was furious. He hinted that Lyon pressured Fekir, pointing at the fact that he released a public statement on the club’s website confirming his indecision. On social media, a multitude of Algerian fans called Fekir a ‘Harki’ – an enormously denigrating term in Algerian dialect that refers to Algerians who fought for France in the War of Independence. Domestic journalists visited his family in their village Fajana, which lies 80 kilometres west of Algiers. They decried the use of the term, claiming that Fekir’s family gave several martyrs to the cause. Fekir’s grandfather also revealed that the player’s mother asked that he refuse to play for France, even if he did not represent Algeria in the international arena.

Lodged between intense familial pressure and club pressure at Lyon, Nabil Fekir dithered. He finally made a concrete decision on the Monday evening, telling French newspaper L’Equipe that his definitive decision was France and that it was a boyhood dream of his to wear the Tricolore kit. Again the masses took to social media to point out that he made the same declaration – for a different flag – on Algerian television several months prior.

Fekir became the seventh player with Algerian citizenship to wear the red-white-and-blue after independence, when making his debut against Brazil on the 26th of March. Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Zinedine Zidane, Omar Sahnoun, Camel Meriem, and Fares Bensradi are the others. Some of those Franco-Algerians have enjoyed brilliant careers in France, while others have surely regretted their choice to opt for Les Bleus.

Meriem, for instance, only ever played three times for France, though he could have been a superstar with Les Fennecs. The same stands for Nasri, who has missed out on almost every major tournament France has played during his career, and is now a persona non grata in the country of his birth. Zinedine Zidane, on the other hand, will be remembered as one of the greatest ever players in world football. Playing with France gave him the opportunity to score a brace in the World Cup finals, and win a European championship – feats unfathomable for Algerian internationals.

It is virtually impossible to predict how Fekir’s international career will unfold. His potential is undeniable, and he certainly has the skill to fulfil it. Euro 2016 will be played in France, and many a pundit has pencilled in a fertile Lacazette-Fekir partnership in attack. Yet the most incredible caveat of this debacle, is that Fekir may still yet switch national allegiances. As France host the European Championships in 2016, they will only have played friendly matches until the tournament kicks off. If Fekir, once more, decides to change his mind, the door will remain open until the summer of 2016.

Though a switch is possible under FIFA regulations, it is highly unlikely supporters of the Algerian national team will ever accept Nabil Fekir as an international. The Lyon wonderkid will have to assume the full responsibility of his decision. For better or for worse.

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