Some of the European-based players are seven Cameroonians - Joel Matip (Liverpool), André Onana (Ajax d’Amsterdam), Guy Roland Ndy Assembe (Nancy), Allan Nyom (West Bromwich), André Zambo Anguissa (Olympique Marseille), Ibrahim Amadou (Lille), Maxime Poundje (Bordeaux) - who were named in Cameroon's provisional squad for the tournament, but have refused to play in it, mainly for the reason of club commitments.
For instance, Liverpool's Matip is presently out injured. Having arrived from Schalke last summer on a free transfer, he has had a massive impact on Liverpool's strong showing in the Premier League so far, although he has had limited games due to multiple injuries. Very likely to being back with Liverpool soon, Matip cannot afford to play at the Nations Cup when he and Liverpool need each other so badly at this time in the present circumstance.
Truly, the old days are long gone when the AFCON or Nations Cup used to be dominated by home-based payers, with only few players from overseas. Nowadays, especially since the days of the Bosman ruling, the number of African players in Europe has continued to increase greatly and as such the AFCON in recent years has featured mostly players based in Europe. So for these players to leave their various European leagues, in the middle of the season, to play in the Nations Cup at the beginning of the year is something too difficult for them but they have got not much option than to honour their countries' call at the detriment of their club careers.
Take a country like Senegal who have about 10 players prominent with their clubs in England. The likes of Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho (both West Ham), Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton), etc, are so important for their clubs to the extent that their clubs would surely mss them when they leave for the Nations Cup. Similarly, Senegal would feel it at Gabon 2017 if even half of these players decide to join their Cameroon counterparts in missing the tournament?
We all know how important and influential Mane has been to Liverpool this season, but now he has to leave for the Nations Cup and will thus miss about eight games, including big clashes against Manchester United and Chelsea should Senegal reach at least the semi-finals.
English Premier League champions Leicester are presently struggling in the league this season and now they have to lose three of their best players, including reigning best player Riyad Mahrez and Algerian team-mate Islam Slimani and Ghanaian Dan Amartey to the AFCON. You can imagine how bad it would be for Claudio Ranieri’s side that are already not finding things easy at all in the bid to avoid relegation this season in the absence of their three starting players.
It is therefore really frustrating for European clubs to allow their highly-paid players to leave for the Nations Cup at a time when they are very much needed, and particularly sickening only for them to return injured, as in many cases in the past. Thus, some are beginning to find ways, whether fair or unfair, to deal with it. The interesting cases of Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan and his goalkeeper Razak Brimah, Emmanuel Adebayor, etc., should be food for thought.
Gyan almost joined English Championship side Reading in the summer but the deal fell through as a result of Reading’s refusal to allow him to play in Gabon 2017, according to Gyan himself. Although Reading rejected this claim by Gyan, giving medical failure by Gyan as the reason for the fall-out, this is a matter that can’t be ignored in Nations Cup annals as far as Gyan’s excuse is concern.
Similarly, according to a reliable source, Razak who was number one choice at his club Cordoba in Spain was relegated to the bench since last September as their coach claimed he didn’t want to feel his absence when he is absent for Gabon 2017. Thus, it was better to use the previous number two goalkeeper to prepare for the situation in Razak’s absence.
It has also emerged, whether true or not, that Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor lost the chance to join Lyon in the summer due to his likely involvement in Gabon 2017.
Players can do everything possible to miss matches or tournaments if they are unwilling to play, like feign injuries, sickness, and so, as Senegal’s Diafra Sakho, currently injured and missing Gabon 2017, allegedly did in 2015, when he told Senegal that he was injured and thus missed the tournament as a result but was later back playing and scoring for West Ham in the Premier league.
Sakho was fined as a result by FIFA but it didn’t change anything for him being absent in Equatorial Guinea 2015 and staying back to play for his club. Very importantly, it should never come to this at all in the first place.
This club v country difficulty is the main reason why FIFA did a lot of work to have a harmonious football calendar and since then the issue of club v country matter over availability of players has been a thing of the past. In fact, it only comes up again when it is time for the AFCON every two years.
Currently, the AFCON is one of only two men’s senior international football tournaments held every two years, but the only one not in the summer, at the end of the European club football season. The other continental championships - European Championship, COPA America and Asian Cup – are held every four years and also in the summer, just like the FIFA competitions – World Cup, Confederations Cup and Olympic Football Tournament.
The only other men’s senior continental championship held every two years is the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but very importantly it is played, unlike the AFCON, in the summer (June/July) and so doesn’t clash with any European club commitments.
At least, if the Confederation of African Football (CAF) insists on holding its continental championship every two years, apparently for financial reason, why can’t it be shifted from January/February (in the middle of the European football season when the majority of the players are busy with their clubs) to June/July or July/August or even August or August/September (when players are free and available or less busy to play freely for their countries? Also, the AFCON, after all, is a three-week tournament and can be held within one particular month, instead of spreading it to contain two different months.
CAF has said that June/July is usually the raining season in some or many African countries, and this has been identified as the reason why the Nations Cup cannot be shifted from January/February. But it can also be argued that the rain pattern in Africa vary from country to country, and also does not necessarily rain throughout June/July, especially in recent years with the problem of climatic change earth has experienced in recent years.
That is why there are other options like July/August, August or even August/September. So it is possible, surely, that a solution can be found to take the Nations Cup away from January/February.
With the situation with the current timing of the Nations Cup, interest and match crowds would be affected significantly, with the European leagues on. This is particularly so with some of the games taking place on the weekends when the European Leagues are mostly on. And we don't want the situation where the Nations Cup gradually becomes irrelevant and unimportant to even Africans like the African domestic leagues, CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup due to the ever-growing interest in and influence of European club football. Sadly, this is gradually becoming the reality.
Especially these days when the Europeans leagues, the Premier League in particular, have captured the imagination of all, playing the Nations Cup in January/February in the middle of the European season is a big disadvantage for the competition.
A day after Gabon 2017 kicks off, Group B action sees Algeria play Zimbabwe in their tournament's opener on a day when Manchester United and Liverpool will also clash in the English Premier League in a game the whole world, including even some Algerians and Zimbabweans would not like to miss. And unfortunately for Africa, both matches kick-off the same time (16.00 in UK and 17.00 in Gabon). Thus, interest and patronage for the Algeria-Zimbabwe fixture would be affected - both at the stadium and behind TV.
No wonder, poor crowds and poor TV audience have characterised the African Nations Cup in recent years. International attention and interest is also affected with the European club football overshadowing whatever is happening at the AFCON.