Soccer: A Crucial Six Weeks for England’s Premier League — in South Africa

Africa's celebration of the beautiful game has ugly consequences for club sides in Europe

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FRANCISCO LEONG / AFP / Getty Images

Nigeria's midfielder John Mikel Obi (2nd L) takes part in a training session in Vilamoura on Jan. 8, 2013, on the eve of their friendly football match against Cape Verde, in preparation for the 2013 African Cup of Nations.

One of the biggest, and potentially most decisive events on the English Premier League calendar gets underway this weekend — thousands of miles away from England’s chilly gloom, in the blistering sunshine of the South African summer. The African Cup of Nations, which features 16 top African national teams in a mini World Cup-format tourney (each playing three group games that decide the ensuing knock out phases) doesn’t kick off for another two weeks, yet. But its potentially profound impact in England begins this weekend — the first on which 15 Premier League clubs will have to do without 18 of their players who’ll be representing national teams in South Africa over the next six weeks.

Oh, and in case you’re marveling at the generosity of English clubs making available, without compensation, highly-prized assets in which they have collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer fees and salaries — and this during a decisive period of their season, when results could make a massive difference to their fiduciary fates where relegation or Champions League qualification is at stake — the fact is, they have no choice. FIFA’s cast-iron rule requires that players are freed by their employer to participate in international games and tournaments. Cheating — for example, by falsely claiming a player is injured — is prevented not only by the national team’s right to order the player to join the squad and be subjected to examination by its medical team, but also by making it illegal for the club to play them should they make a “miraculous” recovery in the course of the tournament.

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To say that football clubs are unhappy at this arrangement would be an understatement as spectacular as the goal scored by Senegal’s Papis Cisse for Newcastle at Chelsea last season.

The players themselves have some control over their fates: They can “retire” from international football, for example, making themselves unavailable for selection to the national team — even if they change their minds whenever the next World Cup comes around. So, while AC Milan’s anti-racist icon Kevin-Prince Boateng has retired from international football and was therefore unavailable to represent Ghana, it’s a safe bet that the 25-year-old will come out of that “retirement” for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

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“Retirement” is obviously the preferred option of their European coaches, who sometimes apply serious pressure in private, suggesting players must choose between patriotism and their careers. That’s against the rules, of course, and none would admit to doing it. A number of senior players, many at the tail end of their careers and hence more dependent on the goodwill of a coach and club, have either chosen to sit this AFCON out, denying their national teams the benefit of their experience and abilities, or been left out by their coaches who clearly think they know better. These lists include Ghana’s Boateng as well as teammates Sully Muntari (also of AC Milan) and Real Madrid’s Michael Essien, as well as South Africa‘s Steven Pienaar (Everton) while Moroccan playmaker Adel Taarabt (Queens Park Rangers) and his (on loan from Arsenal) West Ham national teammate, Marouane Chamakh, were surprise omissions from the 24-man provisional squad.

But those wrist bands you sometimes see players wearing even in Premiership games — Didier Drogba’s in the colors of the Ivorian flag, or Demba Ba and Papis Cisse’s Senegalese one — are a sign that many African footballers are filled with pride at playing in national colors, and know they’re good enough to make their clubs swallow their absence.

Sometimes, that’s a bitter pill. Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor told the media this week that his club coach, Andre Villas-Boas, had been angry at his eleventh-hour decision to end his retirement from international football in time to join Togo’s squad in South Africa. Villas-Boas has stated publicly that he has no problem with Adebayor going to South Africa to represent his country. “That is what he said to the press, but not what he said to me,” Adebayor reportedly told his national Federation’s website when asked about Villas-Boas’ comment. “There is a difference between what you say to the press and what you say in private.”

Villas-Boas’s pique would be understandable, of course. He had obviously been given to understand that Adebayor wouldn’t be going; now he has to quickly adjust his plans to the fact that he’ll have to fight for a Champions League spot with no recognized senior striker to play alongside the diminutive Jermain Defoe.

Manchester City’s hopes of retaining their English Premier League (EPL) title will suffer a potentially fatal blow by the departure of their talismanic midfield dynamo Yaya Toure to join the Cote D’Ivoire squad. Toure is so often City’s match-winner, the player who takes a game by the scruff when all seems lost and by sheer force of will — and skill and power by the bucketful — rescues the three points.(It might be pointed out that Yaya played at AFCON last year, and City still managed to win the title — although it was a close thing, having squandered what appeared to be an unassailable lead at Christmas.) His brother Kolo, who’ll also join Les Elephantes in South Africa, may not be a first-team regular these days, but his experience and ability provide valuable cover from the bench.

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Chelsea have an abundance of talent to cover for Nigerians Victor Moses and Jon Obi Mikel, but again, they could be caught short by injuries. Arsenal fans are unlikely to miss Ivoirian Gervinho if they think about how poor his final ball so often is, but his absence could force manager Arsène Wenger to use players he might have wanted to rest in less important games.

And spare a thought for poor Wigan Athletic, whose seemingly annual battle to avoid the potentially ruinous fate of relegation could be fatally undermined by the loss of their top goalscorer, striker Aruna Kone, who’ll spend the next six weeks in the bright orange of Cote D’Ivoire. (In case you hadn’t noticed, Les Elephantes have an embarrassment of riches in attack, with Kone and Gervinho having to fight for a place among the forwards with ex-Chelsea men Didier Drogba and Solomon Kalou, and the sumptuously talented newcomer Lacina Traore.)

Southampton’s efforts to avoid relegation will also be diminished by not having Zambian striker Emmanuel Mayuka available as a Plan B from the bench. Queens Park Rangers will have to fight their own relegation battle without Malian midfield enforcer Samba Diakite, while Newcastle will lose Cheikh Tiote (Cote D’Ivoire) and West Brom will lose Yousouf Mulumbu (Democratic Republic of Congo). At least QPR won’t lose gifted playmaker Taarabt, while West Ham will be relieved that its first choice right back, Guy Demel, failed to make the cut for Cote D’Ivoire’s 23-man squad.

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The fact that Senegal failed to qualify after losing a West African derby to Cote D’Ivoire ought to have brought relief, also, at Newcastle and Chelsea, meaning that strikers Papis Cisse and Demba Ba can stay with their clubs. Similarly, Cameroon’s failure to qualify meant Spurs and Norwich won’t lose, respectively, fullback Benoît Assou-Ekoto and centerback Sebastien Bassong.

The Cup of Nations adds to managerial headaches, with many coaches forced to adjust their transfer priorities to accommodate it — Man City may well have bought Javi Garcia partly with Yaya’s absence in mind, for example, while Chelsea might not have signed Demba Ba — and West Ham would have thought twice about Chamakh — had those players been going to South Africa.

Not only are players out for six weeks, because of AFCON, but in the past they’ve often returned injured, their care having been entrust to coaching and medical staff nowhere near as sophisticated and well-resourced as those of the European clubs. It’s this sense that highly prized assets have to be made available free for protracted periods that has provoked major pushback from clubs who already strain under the regular FIFA program of international friendlies. As a result, FIFA has begun pressing its African affiliate to stage the tournament during the northern hemisphere summer, which is when World Cups and European and Latin American regional tourneys are staged. Weather is a prime reason for the timing of AFCON, but FIFA’s request may be a fair ask given that the bulk of the players in the top African squads all play their professional football in Europe. Still, there’s no sign of the dates changing over the next five years.

AFCON is simply one of the more acute grievances fueling a mutinous sentiment among the wealthy European clubs that have long been at the epicenter of global football, and are increasingly inclined to challenge the global control of the game by FIFA, which is made up of national federations and has no direct representation from clubs. Some have even threatened a breakaway by European clubs in 2014 that would threaten FIFA’s hold on the game. For the wonkishly inclined, leftie social critic Martin Jacques has opined that the tension, in fact, is symptomatic of the wider contradiction between the needs of the nation state and those of the transnational corporations which have intensified in the era of globalization.

And, of course, fundamentally it’s about money: FIFA, the clubs argue, is literally making billions of dollars from staging spectacles that rely entirely on the participation of highly-paid employees of clubs who receive only a tiny fraction of those revenues. Expect that arm-wrestling over sharing the spoils to grow in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, English clubs — and their French and other European counterparts will have to make do without their large African contingents for the next six weeks. But there’s an even deeper irony evident to anyone vaguely familiar with the habits of football fans all across Africa. On Sunday January 20, for example, when AFCON offers its first potentially interesting clash between Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of TV sets across the continent will be tuned in to football — but not to that game. Instead, they’ll be watching Spurs vs. Manchester United, scheduled for the same time slot. Just as European football today is heavily dependent on the talents of African players, so are African fans overwhelmingly addicted to watching the European game on TV, paying scant attention — by comparison — to African football.

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