Injuries, possible transfers, a loss of league focus. All of these are issues that club coaches have to take into account when they send their players off to the African Cup of Nations, knowing full well that their season could be directly affected by what happens over that month.
Growing up in England where there is no Afcon break, I’ve seen it time and again where a talented African player has forced his way into the first team of a club and gotten himself to a stage where he’s an important part of the side, only to leave for a month right in the middle of the season.
He goes to represent his country, as would I if I was in that position, but comes back weeks later when his side have lost their momentum or missed his presence to the degree that they’ve dropped significantly in the league, or worse, he returns with an injury that sees him miss even more than that month.
In the English Premier League especially, the early part of the new year is crucial. It’s often make-or-break time for the club and if you’re an African player that has to leave then you may be replaced by another new signing. It’s not difficult to see why Steven Pienaar decided to retire. It was what he felt he needed to do to further his career in the big leagues.
In the PSL things are slightly better, though not by much. While South African teams are graced with a proper break for the African showpiece, the break itself can prove to be a stumbling block. Think of it this way, you’re in a rich vein of form, challenging for the league title and all of a sudden you face two months without a proper game, only training sessions and friendlies. It’s not ideal, is it?
Let’s take Kaizer Chiefs as an example. They’re top of the league, have had a great start to the season and because of that have seven players in Gordon Igesund’s squad for this year’s Afcon, more than any other team.
Itumeleng Khune, Siboniso Gaxa, Tsepo Masilela, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Yeye Letsholonyane, Bernard Parker and Lehlohonolo Majoro are all first teamers for Stuart Baxter’s Chiefs side. Should Bafana have a good tournament and reach the final, they will only get done on February 10th, just two days before an important league game with Mamelodi Sundowns.
Also, on the other side of the coin, should Bafana not live up to expectations later this month and crash out of the tournament in the early stages, that could dash players’ confidence and leave PSL coaches with repair work to be done.
Meanwhile, Orlando Pirates have four players in the side, once again, all first team players, and they will have to face SuperSport United three days after the final.
Even if the players come back without niggles and knocks, they’re bound to be tired. They haven’t had any real time off since the PSL took its break, due to mini camps and so on, following which they have been plunged into one of the toughest tournaments in world football.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that any player should ever turn his back on his country. For me, it would be country over club any day of the week. What I’m saying is that the tournament should be moved to a more convenient time of the year and take place every four years rather than every two, like the European Championships, so that players aren’t forced to make a club v country decision that often turns out to be a country v career decision.
Another problem, from a PSL coach’s point of view, is that the African Cup of Nations is like a shop window, parading Africa’s best talent to all and sundry. Say Bernard Parker has a great tournament, he’s already done well in the league, has European experience and could be an option for a club needing a striker like him. Chiefs could lose him. Likewise with your Oupa Manyisas and Thabo Matlabas, they may attract serious interest.
Representing your country should always remain the pinnacle of your career as a footballer. Being chosen to be part of an elite group considered to be the very best in your country is a huge honour. I just feel that it shouldn’t be an honour that puts your career as a player in jeopardy.