The game is global and football clubs have to live with the responsibilities

FOOTBALL, as we all know, is an international game that is also a global language, more effective than almost any other form of cross-cultural communication. The world, generally, has got smaller and as the most popular sport on the planet, football has become something of an emollient, making relationships easier and business more fluid. 

The consequence of globalisation is that we are all inter-connected, all part of the same problem, all part of the same solutions. No longer can we ignore what’s happening on the other side of the world because today, if a major economic hub sneezes, we don’t just catch a cold in Europe, the backside literally drops out of the economy. And when there’s a pandemic in China, the mobility of people makes it near impossible to control. Around 50 years ago, such a problem could arguably have been more easily contained.

We have all benefitted from globalisation and our football has become more interesting as a result. Look at the Premier League and its multi-cultural teams. Furthermore, we can now take an interest in football around Europe and actually watch the games. Just as our food, lifestyles and entertainment have become more varied and cosmopolitan, so too has football and the way we consume it.

So it is somewhat mystifying when people started moaning about the inconvenience of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON). If there is a complaint to be made, it is of the frequency of the AFCON (every two years), but this is one of the factors to consider when a club signs leading African players. For professionals from Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana and the rest of the continent, the AFCON is every bit as important as the European Championship is to players from France, Germany and Belgium. Because the standard isn’t as high, that doesn’t devalue the competition in the eyes of those taking part, it belongs to them and is their second most valuable and prestigious event after the World Cup. 

Around 50 players employed by English clubs took part in the AFCON, while little more than 150 were drawn from domestic football in their respective countries. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of high quality African players coming to the fore, such as Mo Salah and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Dortmund, Arsenal and Barcelona and Riyad Mahrez at Leicester and Manchester City. African talent is willing to travel –  Nigeria, for instance, has almost 400 players plying their trade around the world, in 66 different countries.

If clubs buy African players, AFCON is something they will just have to live with. Clubs know well in advance about the competition, so they should provision for being without a star player or two for a month.  It’s not just Africa, either, having squads drawn from all over the world of football means you also have to take on their external commitments. That could be African, Asian or South American.

Some managers felt a little hard done by because they lost players mid-season, but with the Premier League comprising almost 60% expatriate players, they may need to do some rebalancing of their squads. The situation is even more acute in Italy where 63% of players are expats and Portugal, where they are close to 60%.

As African players become more and more valuable and the top stars go on international duty for a month every couple of years, it may not pay to have too many Africans in your pool of players because of the disruption their absence will cause.

Multi-national teams make for more excitement, more diversity and higher levels of talent and good quality football. The globalisation of the game is not something we should be discouraging, far from it, but we have to acknowledge that international football is part of the deal – what makes players like Salah so appealing is the fact they offer something that so many other players cannot provide. 

CIES Football Observatory’s best sides for the big five leagues for the first half of 2021-22 provide a very vivid picture – there were three Africans in their Premier League XI (versus two Englishmen), while Ligue 1 had four Africans and Serie A two. Today we have leagues that are essentially all-star competitions of varying degrees of competency and their quality is determined by how much money is available. Hence the Premier League has more than 40% of the world’s top players playing for its 20 clubs. Africans are very much part of that story and their presence and influence will continue to grow in the years ahead.

AFCON 2021: Great for Senegal, but a competition for the committed

NO MATTER how you examine the Africa Cup of Nations 2021, it is hard to conclude this was a riveting tournament full of entertainment. For the neutral audience, the lack of goals and quality marked many games as dull and uninspiring. Some segments of the media tried to convince us this was a wonderful event, using terms such as “colourful” to describe the crowds and players. True, the strips of the 24 nations are very vivid and there are characters in the stands that make for good TV, but if you are uncommitted to a nation, and therefore don’t really care too much how your team gets results, then you want more than binary number results to keep your interest.

Senegal were the best team in the competition, but they could have done so much more with the squad at their disposal. For them, winning AFCON was the priority and they did it, via that unsatisfactory decider of penalties. Senegal scored nine goals in seven games and the overall goals-per-game ratio was 1.92 – a paltry sum for the continent’s premier international competition.

Egypt, their opponents, had slalomed their way to the final with the help of two penalty shoot-outs and had scored four goals. Considering these two teams had Mo Salah and Sadio Mané out on display, the misuse of such talent was something of a crime. It was very clear that this final was not about the clash of the two Liverpool forwards, if it was, then the outcome would have been so different.

Finals in any competition are tense affairs, so perhaps it is unfair to expect a goal-fest, but at times it looked as though Egypt didn’t particularly want to win in open play and Senegal didn’t quite have the savvy to break down their defence. However, Senegal were more attack-minded than a rather dour Egyptian team. It might have been so different if Sadio Mané had scored a penalty awarded in the fourth (and taken in the seventh) minute after Abdelmonem brought down Senegal defender Saliou Ciss in the box. Mané hit a powerful spot-kick, but Gabaski pulled off a spectacular save. At that point, there seemed to be a narrative suggesting the keeper, who had been the hero of two penalty shoot-outs in the round of 16 and semi-final, was shaping-up to be the hero of the hour.

Senegal had started well, but they lost some of their verve after the penalty miss. Egypt came to life and Salah’s superb left-foot shot in the 42nd minute was acrobatically saved by Édouard Mendy.  Into the second half, the game became more scrappy, which suited Egypt as it broke-up Senegal’s flow. 

Gabaski denied Famara Diédhiou when he bravely dived at the big forward’s feet, while at the other end, Egypt central defender Marwan Hamdy should have done better with a header. Inevitably, the game went to extra time and Senegal’s Bamba Dieng had two headers saved by Gabaski. Egypt had a very late opportunity but Hamdy saw his shot tipped over by Mendy. Despite a renewed effort from the Senegalese, the game ended goalless.

And so, the TV spectacle of penalties. High in the stand, the guests from FIFA looked pretty bored behind their masks, but the real drama was to come. For reasons known only to the elite group of players around whom the game revolves, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah were listed to take the fifth penalty for their respective teams. There’s something quite egotistical about this process, one that has been perfected by players like Cristiano Ronaldo – the hero stepping-up to win the game. Why teams allow this to happen when true leadership is shown by starting the shoot-out, is a mystery. Whatever happened to the idea of setting an example?

It backfired for Egypt, but Mané proved to be the matchwinner for Senegal, scoring to make the scoreline 4-2 and making Salah’s kick superfluous. After a tepid evening, he came to the party and wasn’t used.

Senegal deserved their victory but this was their time and the team may not have a long future ahead of it. Skipper Kalidou Koulibaly is 30 and four other members of the starting line-up were over 30 years of age. The two Mendys, Édouard and Nampalys (unrelated), Mané and Diédhiou are all 29. Furthermore, they may not make the World Cup later this year as they face Egypt in their play-off to decide who goes to Qatar. 

AFCON 2021 has received its share of criticism, but given the problems facing Cameroon in getting the competition underway, its completion was no mean achievement. The pandemic, the refereeing, VAR and behaviour might seem very critical issues, but the tragedy of January 24 means there will always be a cloud over the past few weeks. Senegal have their triumph, Cameroon had their AFCON, but people lost their lives. Football is never more important than life and death, wherever you are in the world.