For club or country?

There has been much debate about whether the African Cup of Nations should be held at the end of the European season so that there is not a club-versus-country clash . Two football experts discuss the pros and cons. The continental showpiece kicks off in Ghana on Sunday.

Yes

My preference would be to play the African Cup of Nations in May.
Holding the tournament in the middle of February means that the African players cannot be with their clubs, which can create tension. Every player in the world wants to play for his country and we can’t help it if the tournament is at the wrong time. Normally when you get to April, everyone knows where they are in the league. They should probably put the African Cup in May, so people can play as long they as they can with their clubs and then just allow them to leave a bit earlier.

Even if you are a team chasing a title, it would be no more difficult in May than it is at the start of the year. There will be four, five or six players from the league who are playing for Senegal, so what is the difference when clubs lose them? It would be more difficult for the smaller squads. I am not saying it would be easy for Chelsea and Arsenal playing up at the top of the table at the end of the season, but there is no easy solution.

But one thing is for sure—we can’t play in high summer in Africa because it is too hot. The tensions can be massive at the clubs, though. Here at Reading I am close to the gaffer, who understands the situation, but that is not the case everywhere. One of my Senegal teammates [Souleymane] Diawara is having a few problems. He used to play for Charlton but went to Bordeaux and he agreed with the club when they signed him that he would not go [to the Africa Cup]. After that he decided that he should be playing for his country and Bordeaux are not happy. When he comes back he is going to have trouble.

I don’t think it is fair on the players. You cannot ask a player to choose between club and country. You would not ask Steven Gerrard not to play for England for the sake of Liverpool. You don’t choose where you are born. You just choose to be a footballer.

It means a lot to play for Senegal this time around because I refused for the past few years so I could focus on Reading. If it hadn’t been for Reading, I would not have been given a chance in the Senegalese team, so I had to give something back. I also felt that as long as I was playing at the highest level for Reading I would have the chance to play for my country again. If Reading were to fall away from the top level, the Senegalese team might forget about me, so I wanted to make sure Reading were fine first.

I am not worried about struggling to get back into the team. I have no problem with going away, maybe losing my place, as long as the team is playing well. It is worth taking the risk because I want to play for my country.—Ibrahima Sonko, Reading and Senegal defender

No

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) puts the competition on when it believes the best possible conditions will be available. They are dealing with massive variations in climate and temperature across a huge continent. I have covered the last three tournaments and, if we think of football as a winter game, then conditions have been hot by those standards in all of them.

I’ve played in South Africa in our pre-season, as they are coming out of winter at that time, and the climate is slightly raised from ours in winter, so it’s pleasant at that time of year. It is going to be hot in Ghana when the tournament kicks off this month because it is so close to the equator. This time of year, though, is the best for all the nations involved.

People forget the Africa Cup of Nations is a big deal. It is the equivalent of the European Championship and this one will mark its 26th edition. It can hardly be dismissed as a Mickey Mouse competition that is less important than the Premier League. Obviously, with the influx of African players into our league, the fact that the tournament falls halfway through the season is not going to suit everybody. Many clubs—I think there are 45 to 50 players across the English leagues—will be affected.

At Arsenal Emmanuel Adebayor will not be going because Togo did not qualify, but Arsène Wenger will still lose Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré to Côte d’Ivoire. When Wenger was asked about its impact on Arsenal’s season he said the tournament should be held every four years rather than every two and in the European summer.

But that does not suit everyone, regardless of the weather conditions, because the players involved would have a never-ending season. Two years ago Chelsea’s Didier Drogba played in the league, domestic cups, the Champions League, the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations. The football was non-stop but given CAF are unlikely to downgrade the tournament to every four years, it would be that much worse for the players if the Africa Cup of Nations was at the end of a season biennially.

What all of this amounts to is the fact that there is nowhere else better to put the tournament in the calendar. Fifa cannot come up with anything different. The Africa Cup of Nations is not the only tournament held at this time; we have to send teams to the World Club Championship and we manage to do that. It is a packed calendar and the timing is as good as it is going to get.—Mark Bright, former Crystal Palace striker now BBC summariser

Premier League players going to Ghana

Chelsea

Nicolas Anelka has signed but the loss of Didier Drogba to Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana’s Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel of Nigeria, together with Drogba’s countryman Salomon Kalou, makes the club’s chances of regaining the Premiership title difficult.

Of the nominal replacements, Andriy Shevchenko has begun to justify some of his £30-million fee with eight goals this season, but for differing reasons of class and age Avram Grant will hardly be confident that Claudio Pizarro, Claude Makelele and Steve Sidwell can help him impress Roman Abramovich. With Frank Lampard currently injured, John Terry a long-term loss and Grant having little confidence in Tal Ben Haim, the absence of Essien in particular—also impressive last season in central defence—could force the head coach to try to persuade the Russian billionaire to buy more than just strikers.

Everton

Nigeria teammates Yakubu—with nine Premier League goals—and central defender Joseph Yobo, the mainstay of a defence that has conceded just 22 league goals, have been vital to this season’s progress. Sixth place, Uefa Cup group winners and a Carling Cup semifinal with Chelsea suggest this may be a year to remember at Goodison.

Steven Pienaar, the midfielder on loan from Borussia Dortmund who has made 15 league starts, had hoped to travel to Ghana after the first meeting with Chelsea as South Africa’s first match, against Angola, is not until January 23, but was refused permission. Everton would also not quarrel with a repeat of Yakubu’s experience at the Nations Cup in 2004 when he was sent home from Tunisia “for just drinking coffee in a bar”.

Arsenal

The result so far of Arsène Wenger and Arsenal’s season may just have been Mali’s 2-0 win over Togo in October—it ensured Emmanuel Adebayor, who has 14 league goals, will not be travelling to Ghana. The club’s big loss, though, is Côte d’Ivoire defender Kolo Touré (above right), as replacement Philippe Senderos is yet to convince. Wenger, not the keenest of January shoppers, may look for a centre-back—especially as Toure’s partner, Arsenal captain William Gallas, can be injury-prone. Toure’s countryman, Emmanuel Eboué, will also be in Ghana, but although he is the first choice in midfield, doubts about a volatile temperament and Theo Walcott’s potential mean Wenger may not be too concerned. Midfielder Alexandre Song, who has a single league start this season, is also in the Cameroon squad.

Portsmouth

Harry Redknapp’s team now have pace and power after the veteran operator’s summer trading brought in Papa Boupa Diop, the Senegal central midfielder known as The Wardrobe, and Ghana’s powerful Sulley Muntari. How replacements Pedro Mendes, Lauren and Richard Hughes perform over the next month will determine if the club’s attempt to secure a first outing in European football can be maintained. David Nugent, once of England, may also get a chance to impress Redknapp as John Utaka and Kanu are away with Nigeria.

Tottenham

Spurs will effectively miss only one player, as Egypt’s Hossam Ghaly is still out of favour, but the new importance of Didier Zokora underlines the management skills of Juande Ramos. Zokora was happy under Jol, but his versatility and, just as vitally, willingness to switch positions under Ramos—“I enjoy the extra responsibility”—has been proved by his performances in central defence, where he also plays when Côte d’Ivoire line up 3-5-2. Zokora, also content on the right of midfield and defence, has now convinced the once-dubious Spurs fans they have their own Michael Essien.

Newcastle

The loss of Nigeria’s Obafemi Martins, Senegal pair Abdoulaye Faye and Habib Beye and club captain Geremi to Cameroon could be a critical blow to Newcastle, who recently lost 6-0 to Manchester United.

Bolton

Gary Megson will be frustrated that Côte d’Ivoire central defender Abdoulaye Meite and Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf are absent just as he begins to move the club away from the bottom with three wins in their past five games. Megson may look at taking Tal Ben Haim back from Chelsea because, of Meite’s replacements, the inexperienced Lubomir Michalik lacks pace and Gerald Cid has only six league starts despite signing a four-year deal. Diouf is not loved outside of the club, but with Anelka having left, Megson is left with just Kevin Davies up front.

Reading

Steve Coppell’s team are struggling in their second season in the top flight. Sonko received a straight red in Reading’s 2-0 defeat against Portsmouth, which means the defender—who is yet to make his debut for Senegal—is due to miss three games anyway. Replacement Andre Bikey is also due in Ghana, but when Coppell introduced him following Sonko’s red card the Cameroon defender looked inept. Reading will also be without the Côte d’Ivoire’s Emerse Fae. But the midfielder has not played since early November, so Coppell will be more concerned with his cover for Sonko and Bikey. His options are Michael Duberry and Ulises de la Cruz, the unconvincing Ecuador defender. He may have to buy.—Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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