Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

Mohamed Salah
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Updated 21 January 2020

Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

  • High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire

CAIRO: There is little doubt that the switch by the Africa Cup of Nations from summer to winter competition will have a big impact on European competitions, with those at the top of the Premier League perhaps most affected.

The confederation confirmed that from 2021 when Cameroon will play host, the tournament will revert back to being played in January and February.

The tournament was moved to a June-July slot for last year’s edition in Egypt, which meant minimal disruption to the European domestic season. But plenty of Premier League managers will be left with problems this time next year, with several stars likely to leave for up to six weeks, including pre-tournament preparations.

Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp appears to face the biggest headache given that two of his star attacking players, Mohamed Salah from Egypt and Sadio Mane from Senegal, both featured in the African tournament last summer and are almost certain to be involved in the 2021 competition in some capacity.

High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire, while Manchester City will lose Riyad Mahrez should Algeria feature.

Klopp is critical of the decision to move the tournament dates, calling it “a catastrophe.” Salah and Mane’s absence would leave huge gaps in the Liverpool side. There is also Cameroon’s Joel Matip and Guinea’s Naby Keita to worry about. Matip has become solid at the back. Keita, too, would be a loss given his recent resurgence.

The Liverpool manager is upset because last year’s tournament was moved to mid-year to end a long-standing clash between clubs and countries over the release of their players. It was felt that common sense had prevailed when the tournament, which since 1960 had always been held during winter, reverted to summer. African players in western European clubs would no longer find themselves the target of competing claims for their attention every other season, which would benefit the players and their clubs and countries, and lead to fewer squabbles.

But then Cameroon changed its mind about hosting the tournament in summer next year, changing the dates from June and July to between Jan. 6 and Feb. 6. Why? The weather. It’s simply too hot in Cameroon in summer.

Organizers said they had agreed to the change after discussions with player and coach representatives.

But didn’t Cameroon know beforehand that its summers are too hot, too humid and right in the middle of its rainy season? That the country does not enjoy ideal conditions for football in summer could not have taken its organizers by complete surprise.

The situation serves as a vivid reminder of the botch-up of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The host and FIFA decided that the World Cup, which is forever played in summer, would be moved to winter because of Qatar’s oppressive heat — but that decision came only after Qatar won the bid. That change, again, will mean a head-on clash with international tournaments and club competitions.

A football tournament simply cannot keep changing when it will be held as often as people change their socks. This is especially true for the Africa Cup of Nations, which is played every two years.

A major sports tournament must have fixed times. And, to be sure, its organizers should understand that you can’t please everybody. A championship’s times are bound to clash with some tournament or other. The African tournament, for example, will avoid a clash with FIFA’s revamped 24-team Club World Cup to be played in China in June and July 2021. But it cannot but conflict with European leagues. The important thing is to stay the course. Once a date is picked, it should be stuck to like glue.


Tottenham look to seize on Chelsea’s Premier League slump

Updated 21 February 2020

Tottenham look to seize on Chelsea’s Premier League slump

LONDON: Jose Mourinho had almost reached the end of his lament about the current situation facing his weary Tottenham players when he turned his attention to their next Premier League game against a team he knows so well.

“The Chelsea players were watching this game on TV,” Mourinho said after Tottenham’s 1-0 home loss to Leipzig in the Champions League, “with nice sparkling water, with lemons and biscuits, enjoying the game.”

If only the outlook at Chelsea were so rosy.

Indeed, recent results suggest the predicament of Mourinho’s old club is more concerning than Tottenham’s.

Chelsea, somehow, find themselves still holding onto fourth place in the league heading into Saturday’s London derby against their nearest rivals in the race for Champions League qualification. That’s despite collecting only 15 points from its last 14 games, a dire run stretching back to the end of November.

At that time, Chelsea were on a six-match winning streak — its best since the team’s title-winning season of 2016-17 — and wasn’t too far behind Liverpool, the current runaway leader. Youngsters like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori were regular starters, given their opportunity by an up-and-coming manager in Frank Lampard who is eager to promote youth. US winger Christian Pulisic was in his best form since his move from
Borussia Dortmund.

Fast forward three months and injuries are starting to bite, the kids are starting to feel the pace in a grueling season, and Lampard — a bright, eloquent and engaging manager — has been grumbling about the club’s failure to add numbers to the squad in January and his players’
wastefulness in front of goal.

“I must sound like a broken record,” a clearly frustrated Lampard said after seeing Chelsea get picked off in a 2-0 home loss to Manchester United on Monday.

Lampard’s main gripe is the team’s inability to finish off chances, which has become more pronounced with Abraham — a scorer of 13 league goals this season — currently out injured.

With Callum Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic also missing against United, Lampard played a front three of Willian, Michy Batshuayi and Pedro Rodriguez — a throwback to a few years ago and an era Chelsea fans probably thought they’d seen the back of.

Key midfielder N’Golo Kante joined Abraham on the injury list after going off early against United, while Lampard is still playing 38-year-old Willy Caballero in goal after dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga — signed in 2018 as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper.

It’s an uncertain period for Lampard, who is still a rookie in managerial terms, and Chelsea’s recent slump has seen as many as seven teams move within seven points or closer in the standings.

In that three-month period, Tottenham have won 29 points — a haul second only to Liverpool. That coincided exactly with Mourinho taking over as manager from Mauricio Pochettino.

The issue, now, is whether Spurs can keep it up, and Mourinho clearly has his doubts. With attackers Son Heung-min and Harry Kane out potentially for the rest of the season, Mourinho likened his team to someone “going to fight with a gun without bullets.”

Amid a hectic schedule that has seen his team play two FA Cup replays since the turn of the year, Mourinho said he has been forced to start with the same group of players for matches every three of four days. Erik Lamela and Tanguy Ndombele came off the bench against Leipzig having barely trained.

“I try to manage the pieces that we had,” he said.

Throw in the fact that Tottenham has a tight turnaround after the Leipzig match — Wednesday night to Saturday lunchtime — and Mourinho will feel he has genuine cause for grievance.

Yet, he is managing to scramble together results and a win at Stamford Bridge, where he previously enjoyed two separate trophy-winning spells as coach and was once revered, would see Tottenham climb above Chelsea.

Outmanoeuvring Mourinho, his former coach, in a 2-0 win at Tottenham in December was one of the few bright spots for Lampard in recent months. 

Doing so again would give him and Chelsea some much-needed breathing space in what is suddenly a bunched chase for Champions League qualification.