Revisiting the world

Stacy Murphy does a lot of counting and looking at maps.

A few years ago, I think at the start of the ill-fated 2015-16 season I had the idea of looking at the number of different countries Villa had drawn players from outside the UK and Ireland. With the then recent addition of Beninese striker Rudy Gestede (that went well didn’t it?) I thought the total came to 34. Now, after improving my almost legendarily poor maths, I know the that number should have been 38.

In the almost seven years since then Villa’s league of nations has not only expanded but a certain depth has been added as some countries, which had had only fleeting claret and blue representation now have a far more recognisable association with the club. This isn’t quite the end for that relegation squad in these terms as the unfairly maligned Leandro Bacuna, signed as a Dutch U21 international, accepted a call-up from Curaçao during the spring of 2016, upping our count to 39.

With Randy Lerner selling Remi Garde down the river in the one transfer window of his brief tenure the first opportunity to expand our number players from different places overseas fell to Roberto Di Matteo, our fourth overseas manager after Slovak Josef Venglos and Frenchmen Gerard Houlier and Garde, was appointed by our second overseas owner. As an aside Di Matteo, despite his caps for Italy, was actually born in Bellinzona in an Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland.

The Swiss-Italian recruited heavily and comparatively expensively after relegation in the summer of 2016 but only one of the incoming players added to our total, at least at that point. Ivorian Jonathan Kodjia became the pivotal figure that season and it was his goals that were the difference between a mediocre mid-table finish and a real struggle. I say at that point because there was the frankly odd signing of Aaron Tshibola from Reading for a fairly hefty £5 million. In between his various loan spells Tshibola declared his footballing nationality for the Democratic Republic of Congo, playing just one game for them in 2018 while still a Villa player.

Others who arrived during the summer of 2016 only added to nationalities already represented; Australia (Mile Jedinak), Italy (Pierluigi Gollini) and London-born Ghanaian Albert Adomah. The same is true of Steve Bruce’s first scattergun transfer window in January 2017 with Birkir Bjarnason joining Joey Gudjonsson in our Icelandic corner.

The reined-back spending of summer 2017 saw Ahmed Elmohamedy become our first Egyptian while Christopher Samba, Bruce’s uniquely alternative striking option, became our lone representative from the Republic Of Congo. Lewis Grabban’s loan from Bournemouth in January 2018 gave us a second uncapped Jamaican after the almost forgotten spell Simon Dawkins spent at Villa Park in 2013. Dawkins did subsequently win 21 caps for Jamaica while Grabban has never made it off the bench.

Play-off final defeat and the near financial meltdown that followed in the summer of 2018 didn’t actually affect the number of players who joined Villa but these were mostly loans or low fee players, including the bargain that is John McGinn. None of these players were from countries without a previous connection to Villa but André Moreira, Anwar El Ghazi, Ørjan Nyland and Yannick Bolasie increased the numbers from Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway and DR Congo respectively. They were joined in Dean Smith’s first transfer window in January 2019 by goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic who, alongside Bosko Balaban, brought our number of Croatian flop signings to two from two.

After the almost miracle of ten wins in a row and a play-off final win there was a need to fill the squad with players who were actually contracted to Villa. Among the new arrivals in the summer of 2019 were Spaniard Jota, Frenchman Frederic Guilbert, Belgian Bjorn Engels and Elmo’s Egyptian international colleague Mahmoud Hassan, otherwise known as Trezeguet. In among this flurry of incoming transfers was also Marvelous Nakamba, Villa’s first Zimbabwean. We had also waited 145 years to sign a Brazilian and two arrived within six weeks; first Wesley and then Douglas Luiz. Both were uncapped when they signed but both went on to play in their nation’s yellow shirt soon after.

Burnley’s caveman Ben Mee ended Wesley’s involvement in Villa’s season on New Years Day 2020 which led to another, and certainly less celebrated in football terms, nation joining the Villa roll of honour. Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samatta struggled to impose himself at the club but still has the distinction of currently being the scorer of Villa’s last Wembley goal. A footnote to this period was Borja Baston adding to the Spanish contingent despite being able to count his minutes in a Villa shirt without taking his boots and socks off.. An honourable mention at this point must be made to academy graduate keeper Matija Sarkic. Even though he was born in Grimsby his father is a Montenegrin diplomat and he became a full Montenegro international in November 2019. The Balkan nation doesn’t count towards my total here though because he didn’t make a Villa first team appearance before leaving for Wolves. Sarkic is currently temporarily retired from football having joined Small Heath on loan earlier this season.

The latest new nation in claret and blue was added in the summer of 2020; Burkina Faso courtesy of Bertrand Traore. Emiliano Martinez became the first Argentinian to make a league appearance after Gustavo Bartelt’s forgettable FA Cup cameo under John Gregory and neither Oscar Arce or Hector Fulloné making a competitive appearance during their spell with the club in the late 1960s. In January 2021 Morgan Sanson was given the chance to get on the Villa Park pitch more often than his French compatriot Mathieu Berson more than fifteen years previously. He has managed it but only just.

A player and country who may have slipped through the net of our consciousness is Akos Onodi of Hungary, who followed his compatriot Gabor Kiraly in playing in goal for Villa. Unlike Sarkic he is an academy graduate goalkeeper who has played a first team game, albeit an enforced one against Liverpool in the FA Cup last season. Other overseas players in claret and blue on that night when the European champions were given a minor fright were Lamare Bogarde and Sil Swinkels from the Netherlands and Mamadou Sylla from Spain. Arguably, despite eventually conceding four, Onodi has had a far more successful Villa career than Kiraly’s nightmare spell in 2006-07.

Last summer Villa added to their total of overseas players with Emiliano Buendia becoming our first Argentinian scorer against Brentford and Leon Bailey our first capped Jamaican. These players, though, didn’t increase the number of countries represented and neither did the addition of France international left back Lucas Digne or Swedish back up goalkeeper Robin Olsen. This was also the case when Matty Cash took Polish citizenship to follow in the footsteps of another Villa right back from thirty years ago, Dariusz Kubicki. Also, despite Philippe Coutinho showing flashes of the £140 million player he has been, in this context he is just Villa’s third Brazilian.

Up to and including our current squad I think the total of the different nationalities of players to play a first team game for Villa now stands at 47, which doesn’t include the odd Australian or South African who was eligible to play for England (Tony Dorigo being a later example) in the period up to the 1980s. Neither am I including players who despite being born abroad would have undoubtedly qualified to play for a home nation or Ireland. By this I mean someone like Terry Butcher who was born in Singapore or, to use a lesser-known Villa example Charlie Young, centre back in just his second first team game for the famous 5-1 win over Liverpool in December 1976. Young was born in Cyprus. Also excluded are players born in the UK or Ireland who played for Villa but then, after they had left the club, declared themselves eligible for another country. Examples of this are Darren Byfield who won caps for Jamaica later in his career and JLloyd Samuel who played for Trinidad & Tobago while with Bolton.

This is the full list of nations who have represented Villa by this criteria with the first player from that country thrown in for good measure.
# Country Player Season
1 Zambia Emment Kapengwe 1969/70
2 France Didier Six 1984/85
3 Denmark Kent Nielsen 1989/90
4 Trinidad & Tobago Dwight Yorke 1989/90
5 Poland Dariusz Kubicki 1991/92
6 Germany Matthias Breitkreutz 1991/92
7 Australia Mark Bosnich 1991/92
8 Ghana Nii Lamptey 1994/95
9 Yugoslavia Savo Milosevic 1995/96
10 Portugal Fernando Nelson 1996/97
11 Italy Fabio Ferraresi 1998/99
12 Israel Najwan Ghrayib 1999/2000
13 Argentina Gustavo Bartelt 1999/2000
14 Netherlands George Boateng 1999/2000
15 Finland Peter Enckelman 1999/2000
16 Turkey Alpay Ozalan 2000/01
17 Belgium Luc Nilis 2000/01
18 Colombia Juan Pablo Angel 2000/01
19 Morocco Moustapha Hadji & Hassan Kachloul 2001/02
20 Sweden Olof Mellberg 2001/02
21 Croatia Bosko Balaban 2001/02
22 Ecuador Ulises De La Cruz 2002/03
23 Norway Ronny Johnsen 2002/03
24 Iceland Joey Gudjonsson 2002/03
25 Peru Nolberto Solano 2003/04
26 Cameroon Eric Djemba-Djemba 2004/05
27 Czech Republic Milan Baros & Patrick Berger 2005/06
28 Bulgaria Stiliyan Petrov 2006/07
29 Hungary Gabor Kiraly 2006/07
30 Togo Mustapha Salifou 2007/08
31 USA Brad Friedel 2008/09
32 Spain Carlos Cuellar 2008/09
33 Senegal Habib Beye 2009/10
34 Austria Andreas Weimann 2010/11
35 Mali Yacouba Sylla 2012/13
36 Jamaica Simon Dawkins 2012/13
37 Curaçao Leandro Bacuna 2013/14
38 Switzerland Philippe Senderos 2014/15
39 Benin Rudy Gestede 2015/16
40 Côte D’Ivoire Jonathan Kodjia 2016/17
41 DR Congo Aaron Tshibola 2016/17
42 Egypt Ahmed Elmohamedy 2017/18
43 Congo Christopher Samba 2017/18
44 Brazil Douglas Luiz & Wesley 2019/20
45 Zimbabwe Marvelous Nakamba 2019/20
46 Tanzania Mbwana Samatta 2019/20
47 Burkina Faso Bertrand Traore 2020/21

I noted in that previous piece that we had never had a first team player from Asia. This is still the case unless you count our several Australians who play international football in the Asian Football Confederation or Israeli Najam Ghrayib as Israel, for numerous political reasons, have been part of UEFA since the early 1990s. Also as before, and just as well given the current return to a 1980s style threat of nuclear obliteration, Villa have never signed a Russian player or indeed any players from the former Soviet Union. Slightly surprising is that neither have Villa signed a Romanian despite several players from that nation appearing in England over the years.

Finally, a plea to Steven Gerrard based on certain reports recently. While I am warming to him as our manager (or Head Coach to give him his official title), and bringing in Phillipe Coutinho on loan has been vindicated in just about every way, please don’t make the first Uruguayan Villa player Luis Suarez.

As football’s reach expands it will be interesting what will be the next emerging market for players. The World Cup, shamefully being held in Qatar, will no doubt probably provide an answer but whether Villa jump on that particular bandwagon remains to be seen.