Club Versus Country: The Challenge For Africa And CAF

By: George D. Yuoh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 9, 2004

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) in particular, and African football in general, are once again faced with the unending quarrel between European clubs and African countries ahead of this year’s African Cup of Nations, scheduled to run from January 24, 2004 to February 14, 2004 in Tunisia. The crust of the chaos which has become even deeper due to the fine performances of African players in the various European leagues over the years, is that these clubs are unwilling to release their prized assets during the crucial point in their leagues, while at the same time, African countries and CAF want the finest from the continent to participate in Africa’s biggest football bonanza.

This controversy is expected to even widen further as more European players of African descent opt to play for their African countries of origin instead of their naturalized or adopted European countries, due to a new rule introduced by FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations), which allows a player to switch nationality once he has not yet played for another country at senior international level. This means that a player who parent/s originated from Liberia, but was born and raised in Sweden and has played for Sweden up to the U-21 (Under 21) level, can chose to play for Liberia at the senior level instead of Sweden if he so chooses. The basis of this rule is to prevent European countries from systematically and intentionally holding back these players from playing international football for other countries. This is a big victory against football colonialism and strangulation.

Several African countries have already begun benefiting from this new rule. Frederic Kanoute, the leading goal scorer for Spurs in the English Premier League has opted to play for Mali, his country of origin instead of France, his country of birth that he’s played for up to the U-21 level. Kanoute was unable to break into the French senior national team, and so he chose to play for Mali at this year’s African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. Similarly, Senegal has included Lamine Sakho of Leeds United in England in their team for Tunisia 2004. Lamine played for France at the junior levels. Another player in the same situation is Djimi Traore of Liverpool, who is being courted by Mali. Algeria has already included Antar Yahia, a French born Algerian who has played for France at junior levels, in their team. In fact, Yahia, a defender for Bastia in France, scored the lone goal for Algeria last week when they beat Ghana 1-0, in the U-23 Olympic qualifier. Others include Hentra Ilunga (France)-Democratic Republic of Congo, Kaba Diawara (France)-Guinea, Samir Belouga (France)-Algeria, and Nader Ouadah (France)-Algeria. So this growing list of nationality switches when added to the already long list of Africans playing in Europe will definitely increase the number of requests for European based African players to participate in CAF (FIFA sanctioned) tournaments. Though this is good for African football, it will further exacerbate and intensify the fight between club and country.

And as the controversy continues, it is worth noting the complete lack of respect shown to the African game by most European club managers. By their utterances and actions, some of these managers have shown a total contempt for the African Cup of Nations, and as a direct result, an overall disrespect for the African player who they profess to covet so dearly. What an irony! Particularly, the case of Frederic Kanoute is worth mentioning. The Spurs manager, David Pleat, has done all but to physically restrain Kanoute from joining the Malian team set for Tunisia 2004. After Frederic made the decision to play for Mali, the Spurs manager even went further by inviting the French coach to watch a Spurs game, and to ask the coach to call Kanoute to the French national team so that the player would be ineligible to play for Mali. Kanoute had to openly demand that his manager respect the decision he made to play for Mali.

Other managers have resulted to using threats of players loosing their spots on their teams as means of intimidation and pushing the players into submission. As a result of this ugly tactic, some of Africa’s finest players will be absent from the Cup of Nations. South Africa will be the hardest hit when they will be without Benni McCarthy (FC Porto, Portugal), Mark Fish (Charlton, England), Shaun Bartlett (Charlton, England), Quinton Fortune (Manchester United, England) and Lucas Radebe (Leeds United, England). Cameroon will be without the expertise of midfielder and wing back, Lauren Etame who at the young age of 26, has prematurely retired from International football in order to keep his place on the Arsenal first team. His compatriot, Joseph-Desiree Job has indicated that he would prefer to stay in England to keep his first team place at Mddlesbrough. The Democratic Republic of Congo may be without their inspirational striker, Lomana Tresor Lua lua, who is contemplating remaining in England to fight for his place at Newcastle. Nigeria will be without the sensational Obafemi Martins of Inter Milan in Italy, because he too does not want to loose his place at Inter. And the list of players’ withdrawals is getting longer each day.

But more than that, most of the European based African players, who will be going to the African Cup of Nations, will be joining their teams less than one week to the tournament. FIFA regulations require that clubs release called-up players at least 6 days to a tournament, and the likes of Okocha (Nigeria), Kanu (Nigeria), Geremi (Cameroon), El-Hadji Diouf (Senegal), and many others will only have at most 5 days to train with their team-mates for the tournament. And during the games, most of the guys would play without the fire and passion that you see them exhibit for their various clubs in Europe every week. They would be playing with their eyes and ears back to their clubs and wondering what will happen upon their return. Some players have even adopted the ugly scheme of causing confusion on camp, or breaking team rules so that they can be sent home early from the tournament. All of these are not healthy for the African game, and in the end, Africa is robbed of seeing the exquisite skills and talent of its finest players.

But what can be done to correct this situation and bring African football the laurel it deserves? Remember that the basis for all this club and country confusion is timing. The African Cup of Nations is played at a very crucial time in the European season when the leagues start to shape up. It is at this point that clubs that are facing the threat of relegation begin the fight for survival, while those that are within reach of championship glory push for the ultimate. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible for these clubs to release their best players for about one month and not suffer severely. Take J.J. Okocha for example. He almost single handedly guided Bolton Wanderers from the threat of relegation and back into the English Premier League last season. This season, as captain of the club, he has been inspirational in keeping Bolton at mid-table. I can imagine the agony the manager is going through knowing that Okocha will not be available for at least 5 games, granted that he does not sustain injury during the tournament. Similarly, Samuel E’to is the leading goal scorer for Real Mallorca in the Spanish La Liga. Loosing him for a month may dry up their goal haul and cause them some very anxious moments later on. And when you consider the millions of dollars these clubs pay the players, it is understandable why they get uncomfortable in letting the players go. Clubs end up loosing millions of dollars when they drop from the premier leagues. However hard this may be for the clubs, the extent to which some of the managers go to prevent the players from going to the Cup of Nations is still disrespectful and unacceptable.

CAF, the manager of the African game, needs to find a common ground. To be fair, CAF needs to consider adjusting the schedule and timing of the African Cup of Nations if the tournament is to enjoy the attention it deserves and maximize it potentials. At the last FIFA conference, to eliminate this same confusion, FIFA adjusted the timing of qualifying games for the World Cup so that every country involved in the campaign would be playing in the same week, whether it is in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America. During that time, all the leagues in the world are supposed to be on recess, with no club engagement for players. CAF could consider hosting the Cup of Nations in late May or early June of a non World Cup year, since at that time almost all of the leagues in Europe would have ended. This would guarantee the full and undivided participation of the best talents from the continent, and eliminate any justifiable cause for clubs to resist releasing the players.

From the marketing and financial perspective, the African Cup of Nations has not been successful. Today in the sporting world, broadcast rights and the attaining merchandizing aspects of the market account for more than 80% of revenue accruing to sporting events and clubs. For instance, the English Premier League will receive over US$1.5 billion from BskyB TV for the rights to broadcast the league over a few seasons. How much has CAF been able to raise from TV rights? Nothing significant! The tournament does not even get the coverage it deserves because at that time, most of the football TV networks are focused on the European leagues and the European champions league. And when these leagues are over, the networks are often running old games just to fill in their schedules to satisfy their clientele. It therefore makes a lot of sense for CAF to consider buying into the wider broadcast market by scheduling the tournament at such an opportune time.

CAF should also consider the interest of the players as some basis for this change. These players are earning their livelihood at these clubs. Their contracts are often negotiated based on their performances. So, if they get into conflict with their managers because of their allegiance to country, the prospects of contract renewals become slim. Peripheral and fringe players are especially vulnerable to this. That is the main reason why a lot of European based African players would prefer playing for club than country. This has nothing to do with patriotism or the lack of it. It is about survival and being able to provide for their families’ future. Tell me, can Issa Hayatou give up his job as president of CAF, including giving up his salary and benefits, to become the president of the Cameroon Football Association? Never! So why must the players be subjected to such agony year in and year out?

As much as we would hate for Europe to be a determining factor of when to host the African Cup of Nations, we must swallow the hard fact that we lack the commercial infrastructures to make the African game successful and independent. No African league is able to pay any of the European based players half of what he makes with his club in Europe. No African country has a TV network that can beam and carry African events including the Cup of Nations throughout Africa, before thinking about the rest of the world. The current timing of the Cup of Nations has caused the premature retirement of most of the finest players from the continent, which deprives the African football fiesta of its spice and brilliance. So, until we can develop to that true independent and self-sustainable level, we must adjust to make up for what we lack. South America does not face this problem because they realized their shortcomings and have since adjusted appropriately. CAF must solve this club versus country row by adjusting its schedules. We deserve to see the best Africa has to offer on all frontiers, especially now in football, an event for which we have abundance of talents African football deserves the best!

About the Author: The author is a former financial secretary of the Invincible Eleven/Majestic Sports Association, and a former manager of the NPA-Pythons Basketball Association, both of Monrovia-Liberia.