Focus shifts to Africa

Newcastle United will miss the services of Demba Ba.-AP

The Coupe d'Afrique des Nations (CAN) has always seen many top players from European clubs choosing their country over club commitment, says Shreedutta Chidananda.

The Africa Cup of Nations may have its admirers but Harry Redknapp, it can be safely assumed, is not one of them. Midway through the 2004 edition, Redknapp, then manager at Portsmouth, offered his (refreshingly blunt) views on the competition. “I don't give a damn about the African Nations Cup,” he said, welcoming striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu back following expulsion from the Nigeria squad for alleged indiscipline. “You can say people learn from playing against international opposition for their country but I couldn't tell you how some English managers out there are describing the Nations Cup.”

The Coupe d'Afrique des Nations (CAN) may be Africa's premier sporting event (even predating the Euros by three years), but to European managers, it is merely a biennial headache. Redknapp is one of the luckier bosses this time around, losing no players to the competition — thanks to Cameroon and Togo's failure to qualify. But the same cannot be said of his counterparts elsewhere in the Premiership.

Newcastle United finds itself without the utterly critical services of Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote. Manchester City misses the brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure — to say the latter would have mitigated the damage is only conjecture but in the immediate aftermath of his departure, City lost two games in four days at the Etihad Stadium, when the previous home defeat had come in December 2010. Chelsea has to make do without Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou and Arsenal Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh. The situation is no different elsewhere on the continent (Ligue 1 is comfortably the hardest hit), with leagues at a decisive point in the season.

Yet for all the hand-wringing it may prompt at their clubs, the Cup of Nations occupies a position almost sacred in the minds of African players. The younger Toure, a Champions League winner no less, with Barcelona, recently equated defeat in the CAN to disaster. “I sincerely hope my generation will not pass without winning anything,” he said. “That would be unthinkable. If my country does not achieve an African Cup of Nations success before I retire, it will be my biggest failing as a player.”

Nigerian Joseph Femi, captain of HASC in the I-League, is not remotely surprised by such an opinion. “Despite the fact that they've won so many laurels in Europe, African players still want to go because in Africa, if your country is not appearing in the Nations Cup, it is a statement on your power and pride. If a player like Drogba is leaving a club like Chelsea, it is because he knows youngsters in his country want to see him. People want to see the Eto'os and the Kanus. The players understand how much it matters to them.”

At this edition of the CAN, hosted jointly by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Femi's own country will be absent, following a disappointing qualifying campaign. “People didn't take it (the failure to qualify) lightly. Nigerians did not accept it at all. There was fighting in some areas and protests all over the place. One thing with Nigerian players is this — you see the way they give 100% in their various clubs in Europe, but when they come down to play for the country, the same commitment is missing. Maybe we should now go for the committed ones and leave the so-called big-names out of it.”

Nigeria is not the only traditional powerhouse that will be staying away. Egypt — the tournament's most successful team and back-to-back champion the last three times — and Cameroon too faltered in the qualifiers. Space has been ceded, instead, to the likes of Libya and debutants Niger and Botswana.

“When the smaller countries play against big teams, they want to do something,” says Femi. “In Africa there's this belief that you can never be too big — as big as Nigeria is. When we go up against countries like say Burundi, we know it's not going to be easy. Because everybody has that self-belief. So for Africans, Botswana qualifying is not a surprise.” This has thrown the door open then, for the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal — with their wealth of Europe-based players — to add a trophy to the cupboard.

The CAN 2012 has a third debutant in Equatorial Guinea, who qualified by virtue of being one of the hosts and has — for reasons far removed from football — remained uncomfortably in the spotlight in the weeks leading up. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — who came to power in a 1979 coup and is Africa's longest serving leader — stands accused of colossal amounts of corruption. Transparency International ranks Equatorial Guinea at number 12 on its Corruption Perception Index, with reports revealing a staggering contrast between the living conditions of those in government (accused of amassing properties on the Cote D' Azur and in Malibu) and a desperately poor population.

Recently, Henri Michel was sacked as coach, with new appointee Gilson Paulo rather risibly tasked with guiding the first-timers (the lowest ranked of all participants) to victory. “Not only do we want the national team to display attractive football and sporting values, we also want them to win the cup. The trophy must remain in Equatorial Guinea,” Mbasogo was quoted as saying.

But all this will not, it is widely hoped, reduce the enthusiasm for the tournament. “In Africa, football is like religion,” Femi says. “When you're practising your religion, you don't take it lightly.”