The 33rd edition of Africa’s most coveted football competition, which suffered two postponements in the past, finally got underway on Sunday, January 9, 2022 with a colourful opening ceremony at the brand new 80,000-capacity Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon.
That the ceremony itself held to herald the commencement of the continental football showpiece was a victory for the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the Cameroonian Local Organising Committee as the tournament was still under the dual-pronged threats of interference from separatists agitators in western Cameroon and the health and safety challenge posed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Yet, there was an even more stringent threat that could have denied the competition of its brightest and biggest stars and by implication, either forced it to be postponed once again or forced to hold without footballers of African descent, who ply their trade within the Union of European Football Association region. The appearance of Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Nigeria’s pair of forwards Victor Osimhen and Emmanuel Dennis, Guinea’s Naby Keita and Senegal’s Sadio Mane for their respective countries was directly threatened by the unfavourable disposition of their clubs and managers towards being denied the services of their players at a crucial juncture of the 2021/2022 domestic and the European football calendar.
This was made indubitably unambiguous when the European Club Association (ECA), the recognised body representing the interests of professional association football clubs in UEFA, voiced their concerns about sending their African players to represent their countries at AFCON while penning an official letter to FIFA. They raised concerns about the danger Omicron posed and the period of time these clubs will be without key squad players, who will be required to also self-isolate upon their return from international duties, before they can return to club competitions.
On the one hand is the merit of their argument in the classic club-versus-country debate in football. These clubs scout the best talents in the game to help them achieve their set objectives, which are often hinged on winning domestic and European titles, while ensuring they qualify for continental competitions, at the top of the standings, or ensure they are not relegated, at the other end of the log. To achieve these, they offer the juiciest contracts to keep these players comfortable and fit to execute their responsibilities and collectively help the club remain competitive.
However, the clubs argue that what a mid-season tournament, such as the 2021 AFCON, does is disrupt their tactics, game play and strategy by denying them of the players they require to apply these for the purpose of reaching set targets. If Senegal and Egypt go the length of the competition, for instance, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool could be without crucial players, such as Salah and Mane, until the first week of February. Already 11 points behind leaders, Manchester City FC, in the title race, it was a circumstance that Klopp, like other managers facing a similar tough turn across Europe, was wont to avoid, as his belittling of the competition made manifest.
While fears around COVID-19 apply generally to European clubs and their reluctance to release players for international commitments, which evoked the South American Football Federation (CONMEBOL) to seek FIFA’s sanction on defaulting clubs, the concerted efforts to overwhelmingly hold African footballers from answering the call for international duty is reprehensible.
As laid out in Principle 1.1. of Annexe 1 of the “Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players”, FIFA regulation on the subject is straightforward: “Clubs are obliged to release their registered players to the representative teams of the country for which the player is eligible to play on the basis of his nationality if they are called up by the association concerned. Any agreement between a player and a club to the contrary is prohibited.”
As the major international men’s association football competition in Africa, the AFCON, which predates even the UEFA Euro, is sanctioned by FIFA’s regional Confederation, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and as such reserves the authority to organise its competition accordingly. While the debate to regularise the calendar to ensure that AFCON is held after the regular European season, the way the UEFA Euro is organised, continues, it must be borne in mind that climate considerations between seasons in Europe and Africa differ and the resulting burnout from a tiring football season can have a debilitating impact on performance, if held at the end of a regular season in Europe.
The club versus country tussle will continue to be a thorny subject and while representing one’s country remains one of the highest honours for most footballers, more and more today, players are forced to weigh their commitments and brutally protect the longevity of their careers whilst stand-offs between international team bosses and club managers over the availability of players for games rage on, as was the case with Dennis and Watford. However, until changes are made to the calendar, it behoves the clubs to respect the provisions of FIFA regulations and allow their players the honour of the prospect of achieving history for their respective countries by according the AFCON the respect it deserves as an association competition recognised by FIFA.