Thursday, January 17, 2008

Premier League bemoan African festival of football

Premier League bemoan African festival of football.
As the African Cup of Nations gets underway in Ghana this Saturday, objecting voices over the tournament’s timing are coming thick and fast from the English Premier League. No fewer than thirty-four players have left UK shores for the competition, which runs until February 10. Between now and then three full weekends of Premiership fixtures, in addition to fourth round FA Cup ties and Carling Cup Semi-Final second legs, are to be played.

Aston Villa, Derby County, Manchester City and Wigan Athletic are the only clubs not to have a representative in Ghana, while other teams are facing up to reality of losing between three and four first team players. Only time will tell if the African Cup of Nations is to have any serious ramifications in the championship race, relegation dog fight or battle for European qualification places. One thing is for sure though, the league’s managers will refuse to hide their distain for the international competition until each and every one of their African stars are back in England, fit and ready to put on their club jerseys.

One of the strongest objectors to the African Cup of Nations being played in its current calendar spot is Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. The French manager has lost three key first team players to the tournament, at a crucial time when the Gunners find themselves level on points with Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table. Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue are to represent the Ivory Coast while Alex Song will be playing for Cameroon. Their departure will leave a major gap in the north London side’s defence as they prepare for a weekend trip to Fulham and Tuesday’s Carling Cup Semi Final, second leg against rivals Tottenham. Arsenal’s only relief is that top goal scorer Emmanuel Adebayor will be staying in London as his Togo side failed to qualify for the tournament.

Wenger has called for the African Cup of Nations to be held just once every four years, rather than biennially and that it should be played in the summer instead of winter. He has also gone on record as stating that if the tournament’s timing is not changed, it could mean that English clubs no longer look to buy African players. "(Organisers) know more and more players play in Europe for the big clubs, and the big clubs don't want to pay the price," Wenger recently told the BBC. "That means it will be detrimental to the African players because the big clubs will not give them a chance any more."

The Arsenal boss commented this week that he thinks his Gunners side along with Chelsea and Portsmouth will be the Premiership clubs most effected by the African Cup of Nations. That seems a fair assessment looking at the list of players who have left for Ghana. Chelsea have lost Michael Essien (Ghana), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast) and John Obi Mikel (Nigeria). The shock waves of those departures should be eased by the Blues’ January signings of striker Nicolas Anelka and defender Branislav Ivanovic however.

Portsmouth are to be without Sulley Muntari (Nigeria), Geremi (Cameroon), Habib Beye and Abdoulaye Faye (both Senegal). Like Arsenal, Pompey boss Harry Redknapp can at least draw comfort in the fact their most prolific hit man this season, Benjani, wont be required in the competition, as Zimbabwe also missed out on qualification. The Fratton Park club have been quick to seek cover for their departing players, adding the 22-year-old French international defender Lassana Diarra to their squad this week.

The Premiership and other top European leagues will gain encouragement from FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s view that the African Cup of Nations should be moved to June and July sooner rather than later. He has set the Confederation Football Africain (CAF) the challenge of moving the tournament to the summer months by 2016. That’s despite CAF’s insistence they want to keep the biennial competition in its original calendar position, claiming the weather in Africa is better for football then. Some signs of a compromise with football’s world governing body have been evident this week though, when CAF announced the African Cup of Nations will kick off ten days earlier in Angola in 2010. This will ensure players return to their clubs in good time ahead of Champions League and UEFA Cup matches.

The inconvenience felt by the Premiership’s high and mighty over the African Cup of Nations is set to run long after the February 10 final. Given the Premier League’s profile and power, it will be interesting to see just how long CAF can continue to frustrate England’s elite clubs with their defiance over a January tournament in the future.

© Andy Greeves & Soccerphile

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