A change in date for the 2021 AFCON is set to deepen the club vs country divide.
Let’s go back to 2014 and observe football agent, Dmitry Selcuk, talk about his client Yaya Toure missing out on the Ballon D’Or and both the PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards. “If he was white, 100 percent he would have won one of those top awards… he is a bit upset about the situation. Messi is the top player in the history of football and I respect Ronaldo and Ribery a lot. Yaya respects all these players. But for an African in these awards it is hard. Fifa needs to change something.”
There is no denying that African footballers have a tougher path to traverse than European or South American counterparts in reaching the helm of footballing greatness. Now I’m not going to use this forum to argue that Yaya Toure should have won the 2014 Ballon D’Or over the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Ribery and Robben. That would be ridiculous. Additionally, I’m not about to freely dish out accusations of racism at FIFA or in any centralised footballing institute. Perhaps I’m not as ballsy as Mr Selcuk. Rather, I’m seeking to highlight and review yet another obstacle placed in the way of African footballers reaching the international stage and reaching recognition as true greats of the game.
The recent news of the African Cup of Nations rescheduling to conflict with the wider international football calendar presents a significant problem for Africa’s current crop of superstars and indeed the next batch of young stars off the conveyor belt. The scheduling uncertainty for current and future tournaments brings an inherent uncertainty for European clubs with African players or those who are prospectively looking to sign African players. Ultimately the uncertainty will begin to outweigh the potential rewards, player values will drop and the African clubs producing those players will see their profits dwindle.
To begin with, consider the route that an African footballer has to traverse in order to play in one of Europe’s top leagues. Typically, a player will breakthrough at a local or national academy, often one funded or affiliated with a European club or national body, and will typically arrive at one of the continent’s less reputable clubs or leagues. The important thing to consider here is that African talents typically arrive in Europe’s big leagues or at Europe’s big clubs much later in their careers than their European counterparts. Obviously to an extent this is a matter of geography but consider that a number of European clubs, particularly English clubs, recruit younger players from abroad as well as domestically.
Two examples either side of the scale here, would be to compare Sadio Mane’s career timeline to that of Olexander Zinchenko. Both players are playing in the same league with teams competing at the top end of the table. Zinchenko, a Ukrainian, was signed aged 18 following a breakout season at Russian club FC Ufa, slotting straight into City’s reserve and youth squads featured infrequently in the first team before breaking into Pep Guardiola’s starting eleven and making the left back spot his own. Conversely, Mane, following his graduation at Generation Foot (a French sponsored academy programme in Senegal), broke into the FC Metz squad in Ligue 2, transferring to RB Salzburg following the french club’s relegation to the third tier of French football. Two seasons in Austria were followed by two seasons at Southampton, before he joined Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool aged 24.
By no means was Mane old or past it (clearly not) at 24 but it’s curious that his current club were not part of his formative development at a much earlier age as Zinchenko’s were. It’s worth noting that this is not a criticism of either party, just an outlining of the circumstance befalling either player. The signing of an eighteen-year-old Zinchenko, a European plying his trade in Russia, would have been deemed a far less risky investment than an eighteen-year-old Mane at Metz and there’s no doubt that Liverpool (albeit not a Liverpool managed by Jurgen Klopp) would have been monitoring his progress at this stage of his career. Elements such as potential resale value would have been a huge consideration. In Mane’s case, the scheduling of the African Cup of Nations would have been prohibitive.
Let’s be totally honest. The African domestic game is stagnating. The continent fundamentally lacks the infrastructural development to engender immediate growth in the sports domestic performance. All-in-all the continent has got bigger things to worry about.
For the time being at least, elite African athletes - regardless of sport - generally need to relocate to pastures new in order to reach the apex of their potential. Equally, from an economic perspective - for those who wish to engender further development of the game in Africa - the successes of Salah’s, Mane’s, Mahrez’s and Aubameyang’s on European soil is imperative to both encourage new domestic participants and to ensure the competitiveness of African nations internationally. As things stand, African players cannot reach their potential by staying in their home nations. The domestic game cannot grow without the political and economic stability that Africa craves.
There have been attempts to strengthen the domestic game. Look no further than the African Nations Championship. It was fundamentally created to further the growth of the African domestic game, regularly weakened by top players leaving their home nations to reap the fruits of the European, South American or Asian leagues. In response to these regular mass exoduses, the Nations Championship is restricted exclusively to players plying their trade in their home nation. Even expatriate players based in other African leagues cannot qualify to play in the tournament. The tournament runs every two years, alternating with the more widely renowned African Cup of Nations, which of course allows for the selection of foreign-based players. Having run since 2009, the Nations Championship has been highly successful, reflected best in both the impressive attendance statistics and affirmation from FIFA to recognise all matches as first team matches, allowing for the awarding of full caps to participants.
Sadly, the African game tends to follow a regular cycle of organisational mishaps. One step forward, two steps back. For that, look no further than the re-organisation of the 2021 Cup of Nations tournament.
The switch was made back to what historically was the Cup of Nations’ traditional scheduling spot (during Northern Hemisphere Winter), after concerns were raised that the tournament was set to be scheduled during host nation Cameroon’s wet season. On the face of it, this all seems very reasonable. The foresight has been predictably poor. The chopping and changing of hosts for the tournament has been ongoing and the tournament will ensure an entirely full calendar throughout the year, with the World Cup in Winter 2022 and expanded club world cup in Summer.
Jürgen Klopp has labelled the switch of the 2021 African Cup Nations Cup from summer to January a “catastrophe”, continuing his complaints against football’s global calendar. Klopp has his own ulterior motives of course. Liverpool would lose three leading players in Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Naby Këita for the African tournament, now set to run from 9 January to 6 February next year, having been previously scheduled for July. In reality, Liverpool’s misfortune in this regard is just a sideshow. This rescheduling is problematic for all European clubs. It provides yet another barrier for African players hoping to reach the helm of footballing greatness, a further obstacle to add to the sentiment of Yaya Toure’s gripes.
Klopp suggested the rescheduling might also affect Liverpool’s future transfer policy. Should the African tournament be staged in January in 2023, it would almost immediately follow the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar, itself problematically staged midway through the 2022-23 European domestic season.
“We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February – of course not. But if you have to make a decision about bringing in a player, it is a massive one because before the season you know for four weeks you don’t have them. That’s a normal process and as a club you have to think about these things.”
Alarm bells should be ringing at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) offices in Giza, Egypt. The European champions have just outlined their intention to avoid signing African players in the future, despite two of their biggest stars being Egyptian and Senegalese. Liverpool won’t be on their own in this way of thinking. The stakes are too high to place a reliance on players who will be absent for 6 weeks of the season and as such Europe’s top sides will gradually begin to alter their transfer strategies. Again, another barrier the African footballer must face. Hopefully this reversion to a Winter-centred Cup of Nations schedule is temporary. In the long run, aligning with the European calendar would allow African footballers to reach football’s zenith. We’ll hopefully see more Mo Salah’s and Sadio Mane’s. More Samuel Eto’o’s leading the line at Barcelona. More George Weah’s winning the Ballon D’Or at AC Milan. Without more Africans playing at the highest level on the globe, this cannot happen.
Image credits: Creative Commons: Ben Sutherland, Cameroon celebrating winning 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/32497560670/