From Mbappe to Benzema: Six Euro 2020 players with links to Middle East and North Africa

Striker Mbappe could have been playing for Algeria rather than France

Euro 2020 gets underway on Friday in Rome, and it's looking well set for a festival of football after the year-long delay because of the pandemic.

There will be 24 teams playing 51 matches in 12 cities, before the final at Wembley in England on July 11.

Belgium and France are two of the favourites to lift the trophy at Wembley on July 11, and between them they have four players in their squads with links to the Middle East and North Africa.

Below, and in the gallery, are all those hoping to star at Euro 2020

Nacer Chadli (Belgium)

Thirty-one-year-old Chadli forms part of Roberto Martinez’s star-studded Belgium squad, but his international career started in Moroccan colours.

A dual citizen of both countries thanks to his father’s Moroccan descent, he made his debut – and won the man of the match award – in a friendly for the Atlas Lions in a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland.

However, just three months later, he switched to Belgium, permitted because he hadn’t yet played a competitive match for Morocco, and his debut followed a month later. His versatility has since proved invaluable. He played in both World Cups in 2014 and 2018, and while at the latter he scored a winning goal in a last 16 encounter against Japan. Currently employed by Istanbul Basksehir, he’s a target for Belgian champions Club Brugge.

Wissam Ben Yedder (France)

Ben Yedder has scored double figures in all but one season since 2012/13 and he recently finished the French domestic campaign with 20 goals, which sees him second only to Kylian Mbappe (27 goals) and level with Lyon’s Memphis Depay.

It’s no surprise, then, that Tunisia made five attempts to get him to represent them before he made the decision to turn them down for the final time in October 2017. Six months later, he got a call-up to Didier Deschamps’s French squad for two friendly matches, against Colombia and Russia. He scored his first goal for Les Blues in June 2019, against Andorra, in Euro 2020 qualifying. He’s played twice for France this year but yet to find the net. He’ll need to bring his Monaco form to the table to find his way past Karim Benzema and Mbappe in France’s squad of A-listers.

Karim Benzema (France)

Talking of Benzema, he was once courted by the Algerian Football Federation and in 2006 was approached by both former federation president Hamid Haddadj and then national team coach Jean-Micheal Cavalli.

Benzema turned them down, and later told French radio station Radio Monte Carlo that "Algeria is my parents’ country and it is in my heart, but football-wise I only play for the French national team". In 2007, he scored on his French debut against Austria, but his international career has been a series of highs and lows ever since, culminating in a prolonged omission from the squad under Deschamps.

In November 2019, in his continuing absence, Benzema told FFF President that "if you think I’m done, let me play with one of the other countries I am eligible for and we’ll see". Benzema returned to the French squad in May this year, and now finds himself in contention to start this summer.

Kylian Mbappe (France)

Kylian Mbappe’s trophy cabinet might have been missing a World Cup winners’ medal had he followed his mother’s wishes and opted to play for Algeria instead of France.

His mother Fayza Lamari is of Algerian descent but was herself a former French handball player, but she reportedly wanted her son to represent the Desert Foxes.

The story goes that they weren’t interested in him at that time, and their loss has certainly been France’s gain. He became the youngest player to ever score a goal for France at the World Cup when he found the net against Peru aged just 19, while he not only later scored in the final, he was named FIFA’s Best Young Player. He has since scored 17 goals in 43 internationals and this, after finishing top scorer in La Liga in 2020/21, will be his second tournament.

Denis Zakaria (Switzerland)

Born to a Sudanese mother and Congolese mother, the 24-year-old defensive midfielder will be representing Switzerland this summer. This will be Zakaria’s second European Championship after featuring at Euro 2016, but 2021 could be his biggest summer yet, for he is out of contract in 12 months’ time.

Arsenal and Liverpool have both been linked with Zakaria in recent weeks, and he would surely jump at the chance of swapping Borussia Moenchengladbach for the Premier League. Zakaria has made 30 appearances this season and if his defensive acumen has impressed watching scouts, that tells you all you need to know about his quality.

Eljif Elmas (North Macedonia)

North Macedonia could be one of the dark horses of the Euros after having beaten Germany already this year, and among those creating a spark in their midfield – and who scored in that seismic win against Germany – is Elmas.

Born to a family of Turkish descent, then national coach Fatih Terim tried to call Elmas up to the Turkey squad, but the player decided to represent his birth country instead. And now, after a play-off win against Georgia, in which Elmas played a part in Goran Pendev’s historic winning goal, they’re preparing for their first major tournament in their 27-year existence.

Expect the Napoli midfielder to become a target for Europe’s finest if he continues his current form. Whatever happens, he’s already a national treasure in his homeland.

Published: June 9, 2021 12:42 PM

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