Battle for Africa’s Professionals Heats Up

15 January 2006 at 00:20 | 1442 views

By Abu B. Shaw, Vanguard London Bureau Chief.

Players on the way to this year’s African Nations Cup in Egypt, particularly
those plying their trade in Europe, have caused serious concern among
top European football clubs. The African Nations Cup, Africa’s biggest
football tourney, third only to the World Cup and the European Nations Cup,
kicks off January 20.

Anxious European football managers have not hidden their dismay over the
timing of the African Nations Cup which has often forced their African stars
to return to home to grace this football bonanza every two years. This has
tellingly continued to cause tensions between European clubs and African
countries. A water-tight deal acceptable to both has not yet been hammered out.

Club versus Country

Top clubs are furious over losing key players for over four weeks in
mid-winter just as the season is hotting up in Europe. In fact, teams which
reach semi-finals and finals in the competition would have their players
staying away from European club competition for up to six weeks. This is the
dreadful news European clubs do not want to hear.

African countries however insist on their right to host the tournament every
two years to support the economic development of the game on the continent.
But this argument does not sound convincing as far as Arsene Wenger, manager
of former English champions Arsenal FC, is concerned. Mr Wenger, who has
African professionals under him, has called on the Confederation of African
Football (CAF), to move the African Nations Cup schedule away from the
middle of the European season. The Arsenal manager suggested that the
Nations Cup should be staged every four years instead of every two years as
is the case presently.

Mr. Wenger said: “The future of African footballers is in Europe. So
rescheduling their continental competition to every four years, when the
European Championship is on, is the best way out. It’s a big competition but
I find it strange that in World Cup year they also have the African Nations
Cup. It’s like organising the European Championship at the same time as the
World Cup. A solution has to be found.” Mr Wenger has called on the
Federation of International Football Association, FIFA, responsible for
global football, to look in to the matter.

Sports critics see lots of sense in Arsene Wenger’s viewpoint. Africa is the
only high profile continental football hosting its competition every two
years. Take for instance, the World Cup and the European Nations Cup. These
two soccer tournaments are hosted every four years. They are organised in
such a way that they do not conflict with each other. Very often they are
scheduled in the month of June, which means the fixtures coincide with all
the European club competitions on summer break. It gives the managers of
European and World Cup nations enough time to prepare. Most importantly, all their star players will be present. CAF, Africa’s football organising body, will hopefully learn from this to plan the way forward.

The club versus country imbroglio is clearly understandable. The players
involved in this tug-of-war are worth fighting for. France is the hardest
hit. About 50 African players will leave the French league for the African
Nations Cup. In England, Premiership teams who have many of the best African
stars will also suffer. Chelsea, the English champions for example will miss
star players like striker Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Ghanaian midfielder
Michael Essien, Bolton Wanderers’ El-Haji Diouf as well as Wigan’s striker
Henri Camara will join the Senegalese contingent.

Also going are Portmouth’s striker Lomano Lua Lua, the newly appointed
captain of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Arsenal’s defender Kolo Toure of
Ivory Coast; Nigeria’s Nwankwo Kanu of West brom; Tothenham Hotspurs’
Egyptian striker Mido; Manchester United’s South Africa midfielder Quintine
Fortune etc. The highest profile player from La Liga in Spain is Barcelona
striker Samuel Eto who will join his Cameroonian side. Eto is currently
African Player of the year and third best in the world after winner
Ronaldinho of Brazil & Barcelona and runners-up Frank Lampard of England &

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is determined not to release the £24m Ghanaian
midfielder Michael Essien for the nation’s cup. Essien’s recent injury has
forced Mourinho to stop the Ghanaian joining his team. Mourinho and the
Ghana coach initially agreed to let Essien shuttle to and from Egypt by a
special flight between matches but the player’s injury was the obstacle.
Under FIFA rules, Ghana can demand Essien joins them in Egypt or ban him
from playing for Chelsea for the duration of the tournament.

News just in indicates that Michael Essien will not be travelling to Egypt
after all. The Ghana FA has left out the Chelsea midfielder’s name from the
23-man strong Ghanaian contingent. Once more, club has become victorious
over country.

Nations Cup Fixtures -2006

This spicy debate has definitely not taken the flavour out of the 16-nation
African tournament. The sixteen nation qualifiers for the competition
include the host Egypt and this year’s five World Cup qualifiers namely
Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Angola and Tunisia. Libya, Morocco, DR Congo,
Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea, South Africa, Zambia, Senegal and Zimbabwe are
the others ready to take up the challenge for the African Nations Cup.

The tournament is divided in to four groups. Group A consists of Egypt,
Libya, Morocco and the Ivory Coast. The opening match on January 20 is
between host Egypt and Libya. On January 21, the Atlas of Morocco will take
on the Elephants of Ivory Coast. Libya will lock horns with Ivory Coast on
January 24, the same date as Egypt versus Morocco encounter. The last
matches in this group will be on January 28. The Pharoah’s of Egypt will
entertain the Ivorians while the Libyans will play Morocco on the same date.

Group B has Cameroon, Angola, Togo and DR Congo. On January 21, the
Indobitable Lions of Cameroon will slug it out with Angola. The Hawks of
Togo will clash with DR Congo on January 25, the same day when the
Cameroonians will take on Togo. On January 29, the Angolans will welcome the
Togolese while Cameroon battles with DR Congo at the same time.

In Group C, Tunisia is scheduled to play Zambia on January 22, the same day
as Bafana Bafana of South Africa taking on Syli Nationale of Guinea. On
January 26 the Zambians will go head to head with the Guineans while the
Lions of Tunisia will clash with the South Africans on the same day. The
final matches in this group on January 30 will be between Tunisia versus
Guinea and Zambia versus South Africa.

Group D has the Super Eagles of Nigeria, Black Stars of Ghana, the Lions of
Senegal and Zimbabwe. On January 23 Nigeria will slug it out with World Cup
qualifier Ghana. The Zimbabwe Senegal match will also take place the same
day. The second encounters on January 27 will see Ghana taking on its West
African counterpart Senegal. Nigeria will battle it out with Zimbabwe at the
same time. The final games between Nigeria and Senegal and Ghana versus
Zimbabwe are scheduled on January 31.

The grand finale, which takes place on February 10, will be played at the
Cairo International Stadium. Other stadiums were matches have to be played
include the Cairo Military Academy Stadium, the Harras El-Hedoud Stadium in
Alexandria, the Port Said Stadium and the Ismailia Stadium.

The rocky relationship unravelling between African countries and top
European clubs will continue unless and until the African Nations Cup
organisers think about a suitably rescheduled time to meet the international
football calendar as suggested by Mr. Arsene Wenger.

Meanwhile, Africa’s greatest footballer George Oppong Manneh Weah of Liberia
has added his voice to this row. Mr. Weah, the only African player to have
won the African, European and World footballer of the year awards said: “The
continent’s footballers should put their countries ahead of their clubs. All
top African players should go to the African Nations Cup. The players are role
models, no matter what happens or how they feel about their clubs, their nations
are also important.”

Photo: Coach Arsene Wenger, not happy.