European clubs brace for biennial Afcon headache as top players head off to African showpiece

European clubs brace for biennial Afcon headache as top players head off to African showpiece
Mohamed Salah of Egypt in action during a World Cup 2026 CAF African qualifiers match against Djibouti in Cairo on 16 November 2023. (EPA-EFE / Khaled Elfiqi)

Every time Africa’s showpiece tournament rolls around it sparks a debate about European clubs having to hand over some of their finest talents for up to a month.

Every two years, European clubs say goodbye to some of their most influential players as they head to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) to represent their countries in the continental showpiece.

The timing of the competition – at the beginning of the year biennially – has long left European club teams sulking at the prospect of navigating a month without top players. Some clubs have even avoided recruiting African players.

However, the exceptional quality of some African players means clubs snap them up anyway. They include Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Ivorians Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, who maintained market value throughout stellar careers that included regular Afcon sojourns.

A controversial subject

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp found himself in hot water in the lead-up to the Covid-delayed 2021 edition of Afcon, which took place in Cameroon at the beginning of 2022.

Klopp’s sarcastic use of the word “little” in relation to the tournament in a press conference seemed to confirm underlying suspicions that the crown jewel of African soccer had long been disrespected by Europe.

“I didn’t mean it like that; come on. I was not even close to it being the idea in my mind that I want to talk about the Africa Cup of Nations as a ‘little tournament’. Or the continent of Africa as a little continent; not at all,” Klopp said later.

“What I meant was… if you watch the whole press conference then you might have understood it the right way… I said there are no international breaks until March now,” Klopp explained.


Victor Osimhen of Nigeria during a 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier match against Sierra Leone at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia, Liberia, on 18 June 2023. (Photo: Ayo Oluwasegun / Gallo Images)

“[Then] I said, ‘Oh, there’s a little tournament in January.’ I didn’t mean a little tournament [in terms of size]. I was just saying there’s still a tournament. It’s ironic… It’s still a tournament. A big one. We lose our best players to that tournament.”

That time, the English Premier League stood to lose nearly 40 players to Afcon. Three of them belonged to Liverpool, hence Klopp’s frustration.

The Reds’ firepower was significantly reduced when they lost leading forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, as well as midfielder Naby Keïta.

Salah helped Egypt to the final, while Mané (who has since moved to Saudi Arabia) did the same for Senegal. This meant those two stayed in Africa for the whole tournament, which was won by Senegal.

Protecting their interests

This tug-o-war with European clubs – especially those in the top leagues of England, Italy, Germany, France and Spain – has been going on for a long time.

In 2017, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) voted to reschedule Afcon to align with Europe.

Since then various things have hindered implementation of the resolution. The 2021 edition was rescheduled to early 2022 owing to Covid-19, as well as harsh and wet weather in Cameroon in June and July.

The upcoming 2023 edition was expected to be played in the traditional European off-season of June/July. But more wet-weather worries shifted kickoff to 13 January 2024. It ends on 11 February.

“We don’t want to run the risk of having a competition that’s going to be washed out. It’s not good for African football, for our image, and we have to work on that basis,” said CAF president Patrice Motsepe.

“We cannot take the risk. January is not the ideal time because of the European clubs, but it is the only choice we have,” he added.

Since that 2017 decision to reschedule Afcon, only the 2019 edition held in Egypt was played in tandem with the European off-season.

In 2025, Afcon will be hosted by Morocco and no decision on a timeframe has been announced.

Daily Maverick took a look at three players who will be massively missed by their European clubs during the 2023 edition – but who are likely to be vital for their respective countries’ Afcon prospects.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool and Egypt)

Salah brings goals, and lots of them. In Merseyside, he has become one of the most prolific goal scorers in the Premier League, with more than 200 for the Reds.

If Egypt are to add to their record seven African titles since the inception of the tournament in 1957, Salah will be pivotal. With the heartbreak of the last Afcon still fresh in Egyptian minds, the Pharaohs will eye reaching another final – and then doing better than the 4-2 penalty shootout loss to Senegal.

While this is happening, Liverpool’s attempt to win the league will take a hit. The Reds might plaster over Salah’s absence but they can never truly replace his contribution.

Victor Osimhen (Napoli and Nigeria)

Osimhen is the most sought-after African player in the world. The Italy-based 24-year-old is likely to be pivotal as Nigeria chase a fourth Afcon title. The Super Eagles’ most recent title came in 2013.

With the top scorer in the Afcon qualifiers leading the line, Nigeria will be confident of a positive run.

“We are ready and preparing very well. The squad is in high spirits. We are raring to go and hope that we shall do well there,” said Osimhen after being crowned African men’s Player of the Year at the CAF awards.

Cameroon goalkeeper André Onana in action during a World Cup group G match against Switzerland at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, on 24 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abir Sultan)

André Onana (Manchester United and Cameroon)

Onana has had a torrid spell since joining Manchester United, partly because of the overall bad form of the Red Devils. He has not done himself any favours since moving from Inter Milan in mid-2023, making many mistakes.

For him and his club, Afcon may just be what the doctor ordered. It gives him a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate himself and boost his confidence.

Other players who will be significant misses for their clubs should they make the Afcon cut include Paris Saint-Germain’s dynamic right-back Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd of West Ham and Manchester United’s Sofyan Amrabat.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hugo Broos fancies Bafana’s Afcon odds despite numerous domestic speed humps

All three will be crucial to Morocco’s quest for a second Afcon crown.

West Ham will also be without Algerian Said Benrahma and Ghana’s Mohamed Kudus, whereas Tottenham Hotspur will have to manage without Yves Bissouma, who will don the colours of Mali.

Of course, these are just a handful of clubs and players. Many more are likely to be affected when the latest Afcon finally begins. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Page 1. P1. Front page. 16 December 2023.


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