Zak Deserves Our Praise For A Bold Choice

A player like Steve Zakuani could have been very helpful to countries like England or the United States, but he chose to play for his native DR Congo. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

When you're in the position of Steve Zakuani — or Teal Bunbury or any other player with multiple national team options — it's never an easy choice.

I'm sure there were compelling cases being made by the federations of three countries, appealing to the young winger with blazing speed and wonderful soccer instincts.

Having your name mentioned by national pundits in England and getting personal pleas from the United States' most decorated player must be flattering in ways most of us can barely even imagine.

Yet Zakuani resisted those powerful pulls and chose to play for a country that hasn't been to the World Cup in his lifetime, isn't ranked in FIFA's top 100 and didn't even qualify for either of the past two African Cups.

Obviously, there were some extenuating circumstances at play. Zakuani admitted that the three-year wait for U.S. citizenship was, indeed, a significant factor in not choosing to play here. He must have known that breaking into the Three Lions was going to be next to impossible unless he started getting significant playing time for an EPL team.

The reality is DR Congo offers the most immediate chance for international playing time. A real cynic would even point out that this upcoming friendly in Paris doesn't even cap tie him since it's not a FIFA event.

That doesn't make Zakuani's choice any less bold or worthy of admiration.

I'll admit my money was on Zakuani choosing to cast his lot with the United States. My thinking was this: He spent his most formative years here, probably considers himself more culturally American than anything else and probably has more friends here than anywhere else.

To top it off, the U.S. seemed to offer the best balance of opportunity to play and potential to succeed. It would have taken a few years, but Zakuani probably would have been a citizen in time for the next World Cup cycle and it's not hard to envision space being made for a 25-year-old with his skillset.

Zakuani instead chose to go with his heart.

Yes, he can be pretty assured of playing time while competing for minutes with a group of players who are at best coming off the bench in top leagues, but more commonly languishing in second-tier clubs around the world.

That playing time comes with ample opportunity costs elsewhere, as Zakuani no doubt realizes.

DR Congo has become better known for the talent it has lost (Blaise Nkufo, Jose Bosignwa and Claude Makelele were all born in DR Congo but play internationally elsewhere) than for the players that choose to wear its colors. The country is only now emerging from a bitter conflict that has been called the "African World War" because of how many foreign forces have been involved. As a result, the Leopards have been unable to capitalize on their ample football-crazed population (its the third largest country in Africa).

DR Congo is a long ways from being a one of the top teams on their continent, let alone a World Cup contender. Since FIFA started doing rankings in 1999, DR Congo has never been ranked higher than 51st (2003), has an average ranking of 76 and has been languishing in triple-digits for about two years.

Among the country's recent results are losses to Senegal (currently ranked 74th), Saudi Arabia (71) and Namibia (141). The last time they won a match of any kind was over 109th ranked Qatar in 2009.

Zakuani will not change all of that by himself, but it's pretty clear that he is at least hoping to effect some level of change. He often speaks of wanting to set a positive example for others, and this follows that path.

You don't have to look very far to see other players making very different decisions. Every player has their own sets of circumstances to consider and I'm certainly in no position to judge, but I do find it refreshing when someone like Zakuani takes a professional risk like this to support his convictions.

Instead of choosing the country that could help him most, he chose to represent the country he can most help.

Maybe Zakuani's decision will prompt others like MLS Rookie of the Year finalist Danny Mwanga to also choose DR Congo. Mabye Zakuani can help bring his native country back to its former glory (it was once an African power and was the first sub-Saharan country to make the World Cup). Maybe the team can help unite a divided country.

Even if none of that comes to pass, Zakuani still deserves to be commended. I may have wanted him to choose the Red, White and Blue, but this sure seems like the right choice now.

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