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.


Man United, Inter favorites for Europa League finale

Updated 10 August 2020

Man United, Inter favorites for Europa League finale

  • All games from the quarterfinals onwards will be played as one-off ties across four venues

PARIS: Manchester United, Inter Milan and Sevilla headline a quintet of former champions traveling to Germany for a remodeled eight-team straight knockout tournament that will crown the winner of a Europa League campaign heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

All games from the quarterfinals onwards in this season’s competition will be played behind closed doors as one-off ties across four venues — Cologne, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen — following a five-month interruption.

While a Champions League berth still awaits the victor of the final in Cologne on Aug. 21, much has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak that brought European football to a standstill in March.

“There are rules and regulations on the bubble that’s going to travel. We’ve got to stick together, stay together in and around the hotel and the training ground,” United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of the strict health protocols clubs must respect.

Players and staff will undergo virus testing before departing for Germany and again on the eve of a match once arriving, a process repeated for each subsequent game in the final tournament.

UEFA has advised teams to travel on charter flights and minimize contact with the general public, strongly recommending the use of exclusive hotels — to which players will largely be confined — in order to avoid potential cross-contamination.

Masks will not be required for substitutes and coaching staff but they must maintain social distancing when seated, with players instructed to limit contact as much as possible when warming up. Match balls will be disinfected before kickoff and at half-time.

United, the 2017 winners, face FC Copenhagen in Monday’s quarterfinal in Cologne while Serie A runners-up Inter take on Bayer Leverkusen in a clash of former UEFA Cup champions at Dusseldorf Arena.

England forward Jesse Lingard, who played in United’s 2-0 win over Ajax in the final three years ago, is confident the team can capture the title for a second time.

“We can’t wait to get there and play this game now. 100 per cent I want to win it again,” Lingard told MUTV.

“Lifting a trophy is a special feeling you can’t really explain and winning it before you take that confidence forward. We have got a mixture of youth and experience in the squad and for the young lads to win their first trophy, it will be perfect for them.”

Should United advance to the last four they would face either Sevilla — who have won the Europa League and its precursor, the UEFA Cup, a record five times — or Premier League rivals Wolves in Cologne
on Aug. 16.

Wolves are through to a first European quarterfinal since 1972 but were punished by UEFA in midweek after failing to comply with Financial Fair Play requirements. They take on Sevilla in Duisburg on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Inter beat Getafe 2-0 in a single-leg last-16 tie Wednesday in Gelsenkirchen, and Antonio Conte’s men harbor hopes of adding to the three UEFA Cups won in the 1990s.

“This is an important competition. It doesn’t matter where and under what conditions you’re playing, you should only be focused on the upcoming match,” midfielder Christian Eriksen told Inter TV.

“It’s certainly not as fun playing without fans, the atmosphere isn’t there. We’ll try to excite them while they’re watching on TV, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to embrace our supporters again soon.”

Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, winners of the 2009 edition, play Swiss outfit Basel in the other quarterfinal in Gelsenkirchen.

This year’s Europa League final was initially due to be played in the Polish city of Gdansk in late May before the health crisis forced a change of plans.

Gdansk will host next year’s final instead.