European clubs and impact of January AFCON

T

he Confederation of African Football has decided to revert the Africa Cup of Nations calendar to January and February after the last one was held in June and July.

 

The 2019 edition in Egypt bucked the longstanding trend of the AFCON timetable but the 2021 tournament will be back to January, when most of Africa is in the dry season.

This change has been welcomed by those who felt the initial alteration was pandering to European clubs and Africa needs to stand up and uphold its own traditions.

 

However, this new schedule will renew the club versus country debacle that FIFA addressed by creating a window for international matches. But Africa also has to consider its unique climate and not let everything be about Europe.

The major reason conflict cannot be avoided is that most of Africa’s best players are based in Europe and these players all want to be a part of the biggest and most prestigious tournament on their continent.

Scores of clubs will be affected by this shift, some more severely than others.

 

Dutch champions and current leaders Ajax Amsterdam owe much of their recent success to two African players who they can hardly afford to be without for the six or so weeks of AFCON training camp and finals.

 

Goalkeeper Andre Onana of Cameroon and forward Hakim Ziyech of Morocco are awfully important to Erik ten Hag’s plans, the two playing key roles as Ajax reached last season’s Champions League semi-finals and won the Dutch double.

In England, the current European champions and incoming Premier League champions have one of the deadliest front threes in world football at the moment. In January 2021, they will have to go weeks without two-thirds of that front three.

 

Brazil’s Firmino will have to get used to playing with other partners as Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mane head off to Cameroon for AFCON next January. Midfielder Naby Keita of Guinea too will be in Cameroon if his country qualifies.

It certainly will be a big blow to Liverpool, and their manager Jurgen Klopp is clearly unhappy about it.

“The Africa Cup of Nations going back to January is, for us, a catastrophe,” Klopp said. “We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February – of course not.”

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta will certainly feel the same way as Klopp as the young Spaniard continues to find his way as the manager of a big club.

 

The Gunners could lose both their record signing and their top scorer for weeks next January if both Cote d’Ivoire and Gabon qualify for the 2021 AFCON.

 

Nicolas Pepe, the Ivorian forward who cost £72m in the summer, is only just showing flashes of brilliance after a dreadful start to his Arsenal career, while Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was joint-top Premier League scorer last season and has already scored 14 league goals this term.

The two are very important to Arteta and the Spaniard would be sad to see them go off to African during a busy period for the club.

Also in England, Leicester City have been brilliant this season under Brendan Rodgers and much of their rise is due to the impact of Wilfred Ndidi.

The Super Eagles midfielder has been pivotal to the 2016 Premier League champions’ vibrant attacking play, excellently covering the back four as the rest of the team pour forward.

He has missed their last three games due to an injury and a minor operation, and he has already looked irreplaceable. Leicester City have failed to win their last three games without Ndidi, matches against struggling sides Aston Villa, Southampton and Burnley.

If he is gone for weeks to represent Nigeria at AFCON, you wonder how Leicester City will cope.

 

Ndidi’s compatriot Kelechi Iheanacho has not been as key to the side, but the forward has held his own this season by scoring important goals whenever he is called upon.

The former Manchester City striker has been extremely useful as an impact substitute and as cover for Jamie Vardy. 

 

 

Indeed it is Iheanacho’s resurgence at Leicester City that should get him back into the Nigeria squad and on the plane to Cameroon.

In Italy, Napoli will lose only one player to AFCON. Unfortunately for them, he is their best player, the one player they dread to lose.

 

 

Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly has been Napoli’s best player for at least two seasons and one of the best centre-backs in the whole of Europe. Without him, Napoli would be in serious trouble, even worse than they are at the moment under Gennaro Gattuso.

The 28-year-old, who has been linked with a big money move to virtually all of Europe’s big clubs, has missed Napoli’s last four Serie A matches with a muscle injury and they have lost three of those games.

Several other European clubs, especially those in France where every side seems to have an African player, will also bear the brunt of this new AFCON calendar and one can feel some empathy for some of these organisations who might have to do without their important employees for a long spell.

 

While CAF’s position is understandable for reasons of weather, the European clubs also have legitimate reasons to moan and they might start reconsidering their recruitment of African players.

The club vs country war can be brutal at times, and it was full on during every AFCON until recently.

Hopefully, CAF, the clubs and players will work out a compromise which will reduce the impact on the clubs and pressure on the players.

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