DOHA, Qatar — Bryan Mbeumo did not know, not for certain, why he had received the invitation, but he knew it was not the kind to turn down. The chance to pick the brains of Samuel Eto’o, one of the finest strikers of his generation and one of the greatest African players in soccer history, does not come along every day.
Mbeumo is a 23-year-old forward emerging as a force for Brentford, a featherweight sort of club in England somehow thriving among the Premier League’s heavyweights. Eto’o, by contrast, ranks as a “legend of football in general,” Mbeumo said. When they met for dinner in London this year, Mbeumo was nervous.
As it turned out, it was Eto’o who needed to make a good impression. He had recently won election as president of Cameroon’s soccer federation, and he was on a tour of Europe to try to persuade players of Cameroonian heritage to switch their soccer allegiance to the country’s national team. Mbeumo, who qualified through his father, was at the top of his list.
“When he approached me in the first place, I didn’t know if I would go or not,” Mbeumo said. “But after speaking to him, he explained about the project to me, and I was happy with it. He gave me a bit of time to think about it before I gave my decision, and then I decided to play for them.”
Mbeumo — born in Avallon, in the heart of France — is hardly unique. There are more than 130 players at the World Cup representing a country other than that of their birth, an illustration of the growing complexity of defining nationality and identity in an increasingly interconnected, transplanted world.
There are players who were born in one country and moved to another as young children, like Raheem Sterling, who spent his early years in Jamaica but long ago chose to represent England at the international level. There are those, like Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who were relocated as refugees, and elected to play for the country where they built their lives.
There are some, like Poland’s Nicola Zalewski, who were born in one place — Italy, in his case — to parents who had moved from elsewhere. And there are many, like Mbeumo, who can trace their roots through a single parent or even a grandparent, and for whom their chosen nationality functions as a connection to previous generations.
What makes Mbeumo’s case a little more unusual is the timing. He made his debut for Cameroon in September. Barely a few weeks later, Rigobert Song, the country’s national team coach, named him to his squad for the World Cup, one of a half-dozen freshly minted binationals whose international careers started only a few months before the tournament.
In such instances, there tends to be a lingering scent of “opportunism,” said Raoul Savoy, a Swiss-born coach who has spent two decades working in Africa. “All of a sudden some players say that a country is in their heart, while they have never talked about it before,” said Savoy, who is currently in charge of the Central African Republic national team. “It can be a divisive issue.”
It is no less delicate for the players, not only for those who have spent years trying to reach the World Cup only to find themselves inundated at the last moment with potential replacements, but also for the replacements themselves, who are tasked with blending in to a squad of prospective teammates but immediate rivals.
“It can be a danger to get new players,” said Otto Addo, the coach of Ghana. “Especially if the players who were already there achieved something really good. There is a group dynamic that you do not want to break.”
Like Cameroon, Ghana has seen its ranks swelled by imports over the course of the last year: Five members of Addo’s squad in Qatar — including Brighton defender Tariq Lamptey and Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams — were born elsewhere but chose, in recent months, to commit their international careers to the country of their parent’s, or parents’, birth.
There have, of course, been doubts over the purity of their motives. “I know some people are saying they have come because of the World Cup, but honestly we will never know,” said André Ayew, the Ghana captain. “But if they have the right heart, the right determination to die for the team, we are going to open every door we have to make them comfortable.”
Asamoah Gyan, a striker who was born in Accra, Ghana, and represented the country at the 2010 World Cup, wondered what would come after the tournament. “Afterward, they should still be available, because this is not a national team that engages in one tournament,” he said. “Once you have naturalized for Ghana, you should be fully committed.”
The players themselves have done what they can to assuage those doubts. Lamptey, born in England to Ghanaian parents, has set up a foundation working with children in Nuaso, north of Accra. Williams, whose parents left Ghana while his mother was pregnant with him, spent time with his grandparents in the country over the summer.
Those efforts helped persuade fans that their affinity is genuine. They have had to adopt other methods to reassure their teammates. When he joined Ghana’s squad for the first time for a friendly with Brazil in September, Williams leaned heavily on the smattering of friends he encountered.
The chance to represent Ghana, he said, was “a chance I could not allow to escape.” Though he has spent all of his life in Spain — to the extent that his younger brother, Nico, is here in Qatar, too, but in Spanish red rather than Ghanaian white — he felt a connection to the country not only through his parents, but his grandparents, too.
“Ghana and Africa are important to me,” he said after making his debut for the country as a substitute in the game against Brazil. His mind, he said, drifted to his relatives in Ghana as he entered the field, his pride rooted not so much in how much it meant to him but how much it would mean to them.
He knew, though, that his “big opportunity” would most likely mean someone else’s loss. “I can’t forget all of the people who put Ghana on the top,” he said. “They gave everything to get Ghana to the World Cup.” He saw his job as building on that.
Those players he knew before joining up with Addo’s squad helped overcome that tension, that sense that he was a disrupter, an interloper. He knew Thomas Partey and Joseph Aidoo from domestic soccer in Spain. “They helped me settle in,” he said. They knew, too, just how much Ghana meant to him.
None of that, though, meant that he could escape the modern version of soccer’s longstanding initiation ritual: being made to perform some sort of musical revue for his teammates and having the results immediately plastered across social media. “I danced for them,” he said, smiling broadly.
Those moments, his coach admitted, smoothed what can be a fraught process. “We have a successful group,” Addo said. “It’s not easy to integrate new players. They only had a few days together on the field, but they all did really well. They get along with each other. And a lot of them are not strangers.”
But the most important thing, according to Ayew, the Ghana captain, is a deeper form of shared history. He, too, was born in France. He never really had a choice but to play for Ghana, given that his father, Abedi Pele, was the country’s greatest player. It means he knows that regardless of when a player settles on his international allegiance, what matters most is his sincerity.
“The fact they consider themselves Ghanaians, that they are ready to play for Ghana,” he said of Williams, Lamptey and the others, “means they are welcome.”