“I love the fact that we have so many African players … until the Africa Cup of Nations inizia. Then it’s: ‘Oh my God!'"
Jürgen Klopp is not the only premier League manager who will have Afcon on his mind over the coming weeks. With the delayed 33rd edition of the continental showpiece due to begin in Cameroon on 9 gennaio, planning for the absence of up to 40 players from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Wilfried Zaha during one of the most intense periods of the domestic season will present a major headache for several.
Much to the annoyance of Klopp and European club managers, the tournament was switched back to its usual mid-season slot after the 2019 Cup of Nations in Egypt was held for the first time during the European summer, because June and July are part of the rainy season in Cameroon. After a year’s delay owing to the pandemic it will kick off with the hosts taking on Burkina Faso in Yaoundé.
Leeds, Norwich, Newcastle and Tottenham are the only Premier League clubs who will not be affected, with the rest potentially without key players for up to six Premier League matches and two in the FA Cup. With Liverpool in line to be missing Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta for a run of fixtures that includes trips to Chelsea and Arsenal, no wonder Klopp was so opposed to the switch.
He will remember what happened the last time the Cup of Nations was held mid-season. Liverpool were second to the eventual champions Chelsea at the turn of the year in 2016-17 but they failed to win either of their Premier League fixtures, lost in the semi-final of the League Cup to Southampton and were knocked out of the FA Cup by the Championship leaders Wolves. Mané missed only two Premier League matches after being flown back on a private jet just in time to face Chelsea hours after missing the penalty that had eliminated Senegal in a quarter-final shootout against Cameroon.
Fifa regulations stipulate that players must be released by their clubs on 27 December – 13 days before the tournament’s first match. That means Salah, Mané and Keïta could play in Liverpool’s Premier League game against Leeds on Boxing Day but would not be available for the trip to Leicester two days later. tuttavia, there is a possibility that some could be given dispensation to join up with their national squads at a later date depending on what can be agreed with their clubs.
Discussions are believed to be ongoing, with Chelsea wanting Édouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech to face Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on 2 January before joining up with Senegal and Morocco respectively. Klopp will hope he can persuade the Egyptian FA to allow Salah to arrive as late as possible.
“In the past because the Afcon was in the winter it was really a reason not to sign an African player because you would lose him for four weeks in the middle of the season,” he said in June 2019 in an interview for my book Made in Africa: the history of African players in the Premier League. “That was something we had in our minds always.”
The return to a mid-season competition could be reflected in the fact that the number of African players in the Premier League (46) this season has fallen since the peak of 59 nel 2007-08. The vast majority are expected to be in Cameroon. Brighton and Leicester may be grateful for Zambia’s failure to qualify, leaving the summer signings Enock Mwepu and Patson Daka at their disposal – although those clubs will be planning for the absence of the key midfielders in Yves Bissouma and Wilfred Ndidi respectively.
Ndidi and his clubmate Kelechi Iheanacho are among seven Nigerians – more than any other nation – who could be called up from English clubs by the long-serving German manager Gernot Rohr, who is seeking to build on third place last time. Watford have three Super Eagles in Peter Etebo, William Troost-Ekong and Emmanuel Dennis, and are also facing the prospect of losing Senegal’s Ismaïla Sarr and Adam Masina of Morocco for a crucial period that includes league fixtures against fellow strugglers Norwich and Newcastle.
Crystal Palace supporters’ hopes that Zaha’s request not to be selected for Ivory Coast’s World Cup qualifiers this month could mean he is available to Patrick Vieira in January were dashed when the 29-year-old clarified his intentions to take part in Afcon, although his country’s defeat by Cameroon in his absence means the Elephants will not be in Qatar next year. Vieira is also likely to be without Cheikhou Kouyaté, Jeffrey Schlupp and Jordan Ayew, and his Arsenal counterpart Mikel Arteta will not be able to call on Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny or Nicolas Pépé.
Riyad Mahrez’s departure to play for Algeria may not be keenly felt by Manchester City given he has started only twice in the Premier League. Mahrez led Algeria to victory at the last tournament in Egypt and was a key component of the City team that won the title last season. In this campaign he has been a regular in the Champions League.
With that tournament’s knockout stages due to begin on 15 febbraio, nine days after the Afcon final, at least he and West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma will definitely be back to what could by then be a very different-looking Premier League table.