The 2021 Afcon has generated the same old voices expressing the same old reluctance to release their African players for the continental showpiece. The time for tolerating this disdainful treatment is over.
The noise from European clubs and their diatribe against the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), which they spew every second December leading up to the biennial tournament, should serve as a strong motivation for Africa to rise up and stand up for itself.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and many federations on the continent have bent over backwards to accommodate European clubs. In 2017, for instance, CAF agreed to move the tournament from its January to February slot and instead play it over June and July to appease Europe.
For this year’s Afcon starting on 9 January in Cameroon, federations also agreed to have players arrive only a week before its kickoff, despite rules that players must be released two weeks before an international tournament so that their national teams can prepare adequately. This has seriously hampered preparations, with a spate of positive Covid-19 tests on the eve of the tournament just one example. In an ideal world, because of the pandemic, players should have arrived a week earlier, not later.
With what has CAF and the federations been rewarded for their compromises? Threats from European clubs to not release players for the showpiece (with England’s Watford FC using a loophole to withhold Nigeria’s Emmanuel Dennis), Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti calling the tournament an “invisible monster” and Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp saying the Afcon could make the club think twice about signing African players in the future.
CAF had no choice but to host this Afcon edition over January and February owing to the June-July period being Cameroon’s rainy season, which makes it impossible to play football then. Instead of showing understanding and appreciation that CAF had met clubs halfway, the noise amplified this year and Covid-19 became a convenient excuse for teams to raise concerns about releasing players.
Zak Garner-Purkis, however, said in Forbes magazine that it’s actually the tournaments in June and July that hurt European clubs the most. “It delays crucial preseason preparations and means players take longer to gain match fitness; this doesn’t happen in a January tournament,” he wrote. “Yet no one would suggest that clubs would avoid signing South American and European internationals or suggest they gave a summer competition a miss.”
Blind to irony
Even though Europe has been hit far harder by the pandemic compared with Africa, with positive cases wreaking havoc in the English Premier League (EPL) and Serie A, the European Club Association saw no irony in mentioning the Omicron variant as one of the reasons its members didn’t want to release players to go to Cameroon. The association has no such concerns about what is happening in England, where clubs voted to continue despite rising Covid numbers that have forced the postponement of numerous games.
This is a perfect example of the disdain with which Europe treats the Afcon and Africa. In fact, the disregard was there before the Afcon when EPL clubs refused to release players during the Fifa World Cup qualifiers in August last year. With most of Africa and South America on England’s prejudicial red list at the time, even though some countries on that list had recorded lower infection and higher vaccination rates than Britain, EPL teams were handed an excuse not to release players who would have had to spend 10 days in quarantine on their return from international duty. England refused to relax its quarantine regulations, but during the European Championships it was happy to waver testing and quarantine protocols for the sake of the competition.
The Brazilian Football Federation briefly tried to take on EPL teams for their decision not to release players for the World Cup qualifiers by asking world governing body Fifa to invoke the “automatic restriction” clause. This would have meant that for five days after the international break, the clubs would not have been allowed to field the players who were selected for international duty but weren’t released. Brazil dropped the matter before it went far, which meant the clubs were not taught a lesson and Fifa were not forced to act to stop the disrespectful treatment that nations from the Global South endure.
CAF and African federations have suffered without standing up for themselves. This needs to change as Europe will always protect its own interests. Standing up should start with CAF using its power to gain more influence. The governing body is the largest voting bloc in world football, but it has never used that power to its benefit. It’s primarily through CAF’s backing that João Havelange in 1974 and Sepp Blatter in 1998 ascended to the Fifa presidency. But apart from throwing the continent crumbs, the two men never really took African concerns seriously. CAF should use its power to vote in people sympathetic to the continent’s problems and needs, and not someone like Gianni Infantio, who is colonising CAF and essentially running Africa’s governing body to benefit only himself.
African excellence is undermined in the Ballon d’Or and The Best Fifa Football Awards. Athletes and coaches on the continent can do wonders, but they struggle to even make the final nominations. These are reserved for European clubs and national teams who get a nod just for being European. Djamel Belmadi, who won the 2019 Afcon with Algeria less than a year after taking charge of a team in tatters, didn’t make the final three nominations for best coach. But Tottenham Hotspurs’ Mauricio Pochettino, who won nothing, was recognised. There are many such instances, including Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah getting snubbed despite being the best players in the world over the past two years.
Getting CAF’s house in order
CAF doesn’t have the same power as before because of petty squabbles that have caused divisions on the continent. Before it can be a powerful voice in world football, it needs to create unity and clean its own house. The state of African football is dire owing to corruption and poor leadership. There were valid concerns about Cameroon’s readiness to host the Afcon with the laboured process of finishing the stadiums. Add the Anglophone crisis into the mix, with the English-speaking areas of Cameroon embroiled in a succession battle and fight for better treatment, and it’s clear that Cameroon shouldn’t be hosting the Afcon. This tournament will prop up Paul Biya’s violent regime as it tries to appease the angry youth who have been calling for the removal of the dictator.
Hosting the Afcon should never be an exercise in sportswashing. The broadcasting issue should also be sorted out as a matter of urgency. It’s criminal that because of CAF corruption, a large part of the continent doesn’t have access to African football on their televisions. CAF needs to get its house in order and stand up for itself against European bullying because it will not end without the governing body taking drastic actions.
The biggest losers in all of this are the players. They are caught in the middle, with the financial rewards of playing in Europe equally important to playing for their home country. The Afcon is a special tournament. It’s like eating a meal from home after spending many months working far away. The meal might not be fancy, but it’s wholesome and good for the soul.
“You cannot imagine how moved and happy I am to be here today and be able to play a match that will bring joy to my country. This is priceless. Money doesn’t matter in such moments,” former Mali captain Seydou Keita said at the 2013 Afcon in South Africa.
At the time, Mali was embroiled in a secession war. Keita volunteered to pay the bonuses of his teammates after the Malian federation could not finalise the issue. He felt it was disrespectful to be fighting over money when people back home were losing their lives, and wanted the Mali national team to offer a brief moment of joy for Malians during that period. There are many stories like this that highlight the significance of the Afcon. Imagine then if Keita was told by Barcelona he couldn’t play in that Afcon because their La Liga campaign mattered more?
An Afcon without European drama is actually good for everyone. It means players can play freely, express themselves and put on a show that will make the continent proud. The tournament is also an important scouting event for European clubs, so having the best players from the continent in one place for its duration means value for their travel experience in looking to bring in players who can strengthen their teams. It’s ironic that many teams sign players because of their exploits in international football, yet later they turn around and do not want them to play international football anymore.