Like many footballers with dual nationality, Ajax’s star striker Sébastien Haller had a choice to make.
Born in a southern Parisian suburb, to a French father and Ivorian mother, Haller had represented France during the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2011.
But in November 2020, ahead of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying rounds, the Ivory Coast came knocking.
After not being selected for France’s senior squad, Haller decided to play for the Ivory Coast and says wearing the Elephants’ kit is an honour.
However, following his meteoric goal-scoring rise at Ajax over the last two seasons, some questioned whether he had any regrets about his decision.
Haller will miss out on playing with the likes of Karim Benzema and N’golo Kante for France but the 27 year-old Haller explained that choosing which country to represent was “a really personal decision” and is “more complicated than it seems to be.”
“I think it’s not only about where you were born, it’s also how you feel … Of course for me, both countries were really important for me, to be part of my culture. So asking me to choose [only] one of them, it’s just stupid,” Haller told CNN Sport’s Darren Lewis.
“For me it’s both countries, and it’s like you need to choose a part of you … Also we need to realize that it’s only about football, and I was at a time of my life that I wanted to take a choice and the choice from Ivory Coast seemed to me the most appropriate,” the striker added.
READ: Canada celebrates reaching first men’s World Cup in 36 years
In September 2020, just one month prior to Haller’s Ivorian call-up, the FIFA Congress that year voted to change the rules around eligibility for national teams.
This meant players were no longer tied to a national team based on single youth appearances and could switch national teams if they were eligible.
Fellow Ivorian teammate Wilfried Zaha – who grew up in England since the age of four and who had represented England in two non-competitive matches in 2012 – similarly made a choice to represent the Elephants for the 2017 AFCON, after not playing for the Three Lions for four years.
Haller made his Ivorian debut in an AFCON qualifying match against Madagascar in November 2020, scoring the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory.
During the tournament in Cameroon, the Ajax striker teamed up with Arsenal’s Nicolas Pépé and PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Sangaré as Ivory Coast’s top goal scorers.
Ultimately though the Elephants were knocked out by Egypt in penalties during the round of 16.
The team also missed out on qualifying for the 2022 Qatar World Cup after losing 1-0 to Cameroon, but Haller thinks his country, along with other African nations, are getting closer to winning a major tournament.
“In terms of quality of the players, there is a lot of quality, but then the conditions are really different in Europe,” Haller said.
“How you prepare for the games, the travel, the pitch, the hotel, the fans, the stadium. Everything is different, so you need to adapt.”
Finding the back of the net has not been a problem for Haller recently. He has scored 20 goals in 24 games for Ajax in the league and has become the quickest player to reach 11 goals in Champions League history.
He is also the second highest goal scorer in this year’s competition, only recently beaten out of the top spot by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski.
However, the rise of his goalscoring prowess did not happen overnight.
Return to form
Haller joined Premier League team West Ham United from Eintracht Frankfurt for a club record fee of £45 million ($59 million) in 2019, but spent just two seasons with the Hammers.
When asked why his spell at West Ham did not go as planned, Haller cited wrong timing, a different playing style and fitness as the reasons for his “frustrating” exit from the club.
But a reunion with his former Utrecht coach Erik ten Hag at Ajax has resulted in a new lease of life.
“He is responsible a lot for me coming to Ajax because of course, I know him well. I know what he is able to do and how he wanted to use me,” Haller said.
“I know how good he is tactically, he always has a good view on the opponents. So he gives us the keys to succeed during the game.”
After winning all six of their group stage games, Ajax narrowly missed out on the Champions League quarterfinal after losing 1-0 to Benfica in the second leg of the ound of 16 earlier this month.
Ten Hag’s domestic success reportedly earned him a formal interview with Manchester United, in the Premier League club’s search for a permanent manager.
Haller was asked if the Ajax players have tried persuading their coach to stay or if they understand the pull of the Premier League.
“Of course, I think we all understand. I think it is for the coach to choose what he wants, we are just his players,” Haller said.
“I’m just grateful for what he did to me, and I just hope that he will take the best decision for himself.”
“[Ten Hag] is clever, he knows his strengths, but also his weaknesses, so I think he’s trying to become better every day.
“But yeah I want to say that every dressing room is different, every team is different. So you need to act a bit differently, [depending on] the dressing room you have.
“So maybe his qualities today, they can be weaknesses somewhere else. So let’s see, let’s see how he [does].”