Africa Cup of Nations lacks lustre for clubs

The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Gabon next weekend, and if that’s a shrug I detect, then you are not alone.
Africa Cup of Nations lacks lustre for clubs

The tournament is cursed by being seen as an irrelevance or an intrusion or both. We’re not even sure what to call it. Africa Cup, or African? ACON or CAN?

When seven Cameroon players refused to take part there was unmistakable approval from clubs and fans alike. Managers have to be careful about what they say, because there is an outside chance of a football association seeking a Fifa ban on players refusing a national call-up, but Jurgen Klopp was quite open about Joel Matip:

“We actually had this talk a few weeks ago already, so I was not surprised,” he said. “Of course, I am happy about this, there is no doubt, but the players make these decisions by themselves.”

The perennial problem is that because the tournament comes mid-season, no-one has the authority to enforce common standards, so, clubs with less clout, or with players more committed to the national cause, tend to lose out; Leicester, Stoke, and Sunderland being the most obvious Premier League examples.

Cameroon are especially aggrieved. They feel young players, such as Zambo Anguissa and Ibrahim Amadou, have had their arms twisted by their clubs. It rankles more when the clubs are French, in this case Marseille and Lille, because of colonial history, but then, Cameroon’s football association Fecafoot has its a history of poor relations with players.

The tournament build-up has also been soured by now-familiar protests about daily living allowances and unpaid bonuses, notably from the Zimbabwe squad.

Even Gabon have doubters, despite the fact the hosts are led by one of the stars of the tournament, Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Four years ago, when they were co-hosts, they lost out to Mali when Aubameyang missed his penalty in the shoot-out, and that disappointment lives on. Unfortunately, apart from Juventus reserve Mario Lemina in midfield, Gabon again lack the quality to deliver success. They should go though from their group, given Cameroon are missing so many players. For those who like underdogs, this group also includes newcomers Guinea-Bissau. Most of their squad play in Portugal, another former colonial power, mostly for unfashionable clubs such as Mafra or Freamunde.

The best players always opt to play for Portugal, notably Eder, who scored the goal that won the European title last July. It would be nice to see them make a mark in this tournament, though it is unlikely. Burkina Faso, with the brothers Alain and Bertrand Traoré, stand a better chance.

Group B is the group of death, with three of the strongest sides: Senegal, Tunisia, and Algeria. Algeria, apart from their established stars, such as Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani, and Nabil Bentaleb, have at least half a dozen of their squad in the transfer shop window. Yacine Brahimi (Porto) and Rachid Ghezzal (Lyon) are two attacking players with ambitions, and another to watch is Faouzi Ghoulam, the Napoli left-back, who is a potential signing for several clubs, among them Bayern Munich.

Senegal, in addition to their Premier League players such as Sadio Mané and Idrissa Gueye, have Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli, who Chelsea were after last summer, and the Lazio forward Keita, a Barcelona youth player, said to be a target for both Milan and Manchester United.

Up against two attacking sides, Tunisia will again rely on a powerful defence, and are worth watching, as, unlike many contenders, most of their squad play in their own country. Their game against Algeria on Thursday week should be lively.

Another first-round highlight should be Egypt’s game against Ghana, not only because both sides have good, experienced players, such as Ghanaian brothers Jordan and André Ayew or Egypt’s Mohammed Salah, but also because of their managers.

Avram Grant is remembered for coming within a whisker of Champions League glory at Chelsea, but it’s Egypt manager Hector Cuper, who has experienced most heartache. Beaten finalist in the Cup Winners’ Cup with Mallorca, and then twice running in the Champions League with Valencia, he could have been a football legend rather than Europe’s forgotten man. Maybe the Argentinian will become an Egyptian legend.

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