While the event is an undeniably joyous, vibrant celebration of football in the region, it has steadily evolved into a biennial bugbear among club managers in Europe.
The timing of the tournament, which falls in the middle of the European club season, has long been a bone of contention – its scheduling means that players often miss up to six or seven domestic fixtures.
Former Charlton manager Alan Curbishley publicly voiced his dismay at the scheduling of the tournament in 2005, angry at the prospect of having to do without Moroccan defender Talal El Karkouri. He admitted that “African players are now realising it is prohibitive for themselves to come into the Premiership if this [the timing of the tournament] carries on”.
Curbishley’s sentiments echo the feelings of many of his fellow managers, although annoyance at the timing of the tournament seems to have extended to participating players too.
“To compete in the Africa Cup of Nations is catastrophic for a player these days. Coaches no longer want to sign players because of it,” bemoaned Côte d’Ivoire international Kolo Touré.
“I feel it’s going to be more difficult for the Africans in football in the future. African players are the victim of discrimination.”
Although the Manchester City centre-back has since claimed that his comments were misinterpreted, the above statement, as reported by the French press, does seem to raise a valid point.
The upcoming Cup of Nations, which runs from January 21 to February 12, could see as many as 16 players from a total of eight Premier League clubs leave for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for a period of up to six weeks (the tournament itself lasts for four weeks, but FIFA regulations require players to be released two weeks before the opening day of the competition). This number does not include long-term injury victims, such as Ghana’s Michael Essien and Mali’s Mamady Sidibe, who would almost certainly figure for their countries next month if fitness permitted.
Indeed, several Premier League managers can consider themselves to be luckier than some of their counterparts. The failure of three of Africa’s big guns – Cameroon, Nigeria and last year’s World Cup hosts South Africa – to qualify for January’s event means that the Premier League will not be deprived of the services of up to 13 further players. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp will be particularly grateful – had Cameroon and South Africa qualified, he could’ve faced the absences of Benoît Assou-Ekotto, Sébastien Bassong and Steven Pienaar.
Notwithstanding the absence itself and the threat of potential injuries, the pressure cooker environment of international tournaments often leads to physical and emotional damage. Players scarred by contentious decisions and early exits may be adversely affected when the time comes to rejoin their clubs.
With so much at stake, clubs and managers surely can’t be blamed for stringently considering whether or not to sign African players. When signing a player from the continent, clubs surely bear in mind the fact that such an acquisition is likely to entail six weeks’ absence from Premier League every two years – a substantial chunk of domestic football action.
Despite managers’ grievances, it could be argued that clubs should plan more effectively for the temporary absences of key personnel.
Chelsea relinquished the services of four players at both the 2008 and 2010 editions of the Cup of Nations, yet managed to complete the corresponding periods of domestic fixtures unbeaten (they won three games and drew two in 2008, and won three games out of three in 2010). Evidently they benefitted from having great strength in depth, but in Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, they were deprived of two of their most potent, irreplaceable weapons.
Be it intentional or not, it is telling that neither Manchester United nor Liverpool have signed and fully integrated an international level player of African origin in the last few years. The last Liverpool player to feature at the Cup of Nations, Momo Sissoko (in 2008), could scarcely be considered a first-team regular at the time (he was also sold to Juventus during the tournament itself).
Meanwhile, the Cup of Nations-bound Old Trafford contingent in recent years has been limited to Manucho (also in 2008), who found himself some distance behind the little-known triumvirate of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez in the forward pecking order. Mame Biram Diouf is likely to lead Senegal’s charge in January, but it would be optimistic to state that he is anything more than sixth-choice forward at Old Trafford at the minute.
Touré’s supposed claim that “African players are the victim of discrimination” may appear to be the ramblings of a paranoid, out-of-sorts player, but a look at the number of Cup of Nations-eligible Premier League players over the last few seasons would certainly vindicate his assertion.
The 2008 Cup of Nations, which was held in Ghana, saw the Premier League deprived of 34 players, including four each from Chelsea, Newcastle United and Portsmouth. Two years later, 23 players departed the Premier League for six weeks in Angola. This year the figure is unlikely to reach 16. This marked decline is surely no coincidence.
Given that the Cup of Nations has taken place in January/February since its inception in 1957, it would be unfair to implore the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to reschedule its timing to a slot more conducive to European club football. However, it appears that a mutually beneficial conclusion needs to be struck soon if all parties involved are to remain satisfied.
The Premier League is one of the most global, cultural domestic leagues in the world, and it has been greatly enhanced by the presence of African players. A cursory glance back at some of the league’s iconic moments over the last 20 years would no doubt include several contributions made by African players, such as Nwankwo Kanu’s unforgettable hat-trick at Stamford Bridge in October 1999 or compatriot Jay-Jay Okocha’s stunning solo effort against West Ham United in 2003.
The future likelihood of occurrences like these could be compromised if a solution is not sought. When a man with over 80 caps for his country is describing involvement in an international tournament in his home continent – theoretically one of the proudest moments of a footballer’s career – as “catastrophic”, you realise that something has to give. The question is, which one will it be?
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