The African Nations Cup, now being played in Ghana, was immersed in controversy before it even began. From European clubs came an increasingly strident litany of complaints about the timing of the tournament.
The problem is that a great many European clubs now employ African players. They are frequently key members of the team. Under FIFA regulations, these players must be released for national team duty whenever they are wanted for an official FIFA tournament. The African Nations Cup is just such a tournament, and it occasions a mass if temporary exodus of African players back to their own continent, leaving some European clubs stripped of important players at what is viewed as a crucial moment of the season. In France, 18 of the 20 Ligue 1 clubs will lose players, as will top clubs in Spain and Germany. But it is the English Premier League that is the hardest hit, with more than 40 players called up by the 16 African nations that have qualified for the Nations Cup. Portsmouth will be without five of its players during the tournament, while Chelsea loses four regular starters: Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), and Michael Essien (Ghana).
Chelsea's coach Avram Grant complained: "I think we need to think about [signing African players] again When you sign players and you don't see them for several games, you need to think if you should sign four players or just two. I respect the African Nations Cup, but I think they need to find another date or do something else."
Exactly what Grant means by doing "something else" apart from abandoning the tournament altogether is unclear. But everyone understands what he means by finding another date. The Europeans want Africa to shift their Nations Cup to the summer, so that, like the World Cup and most other major tournaments, it is played during the European off-season.
The Europeans have another complaint (one that, for the moment, they are not pressing). It is the same criticism that they have leveled at the South American championship: Why do those two tournaments have to be staged every two years, when the other major events such as the World Cup, the Olympic games, and the European Championship are all played only once every four years? But during its 52-year history since the first edition in 1957, the Nations Cup has been played every two years, and the January date has become traditional. The suggestion that tradition be abandoned and abandoned to suit European requirements has not gone down well in Africa. Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, who is the president of the African soccer confederation (CAF), insists, "As long as I remain president of CAF, the date scheduled for Africa's biggest soccer fiesta will remain unchanged."
Hayatou is pitting the Africans against the influence and commercial might of Europe and against the wishes of FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Last week, Blatter urged the Africans to switch to the summer, and to change the years in which they play. At the moment, every second Nations Cup is played at the beginning of a World Cup year. Thus 2010, a World Cup year, will begin with the African Nations Cup in January. Blatter's point is that a schedule of club games, plus the Nations Cup, is likely to mean that African players will be physically drained and unable to perform at their peak by the time the World Cup kicks off in June. His argument has particular force, because the 2010 World Cup will be played in South Africa, the first time that an African nation has hosted soccer's premier event.
While the future scheduling of the Nations Cup has yet to be settled, more immediate problems arose during the playing of the opening game of this year's tournament. Ghana, the hosts and a likely winner, took on outsiders Guinea. Ghana won the game, but hardly in the comfortable way that had been expected. The score was a narrow 21, with Sulley Muntari's winning goal coming in the final minute of the game.
Ghana's coach, the French-born Claude Le Roy, had an explanation: the playing surface. He complained, "In more than 20 years in Africa, it's the worst field I've ever seen. We have a technical team, which likes to play one-touch football, and this field badly affected our game."
Le Roy also added a swipe at what has long been a matter for discontent among African players: the accusation that the VIPs of African soccer look after themselves very well, and pay too little attention to ensuring that the players receive first-class treatment. "The first thing is not the quality of the armchair in the VIP room, but the quality of the field," Le Roy said.
His complaint about the field centered on the uneven surface and the long grass, which work to the disadvantage of a team that, as does Ghana, prefers to play a passing game with the ball kept on the ground. Le Roy has reason to feel particularly aggrieved: After all, the event is being organized by Ghana, and it was not to be expected that matters would be made more difficult for the host team.
The Ghana vs. Guinea game also featured a glaring example of what has long been a major fault of African soccer: wild tackling. Ghana's first goal resulted from a rough tackle by Guinea's Oumar Kalabane on Junior Agogo; Asamoah Gyan scored from the resulting penalty kick.
The topic of rough play by Africans has been highlighted by recent criticism of Chelsea's midfield pair of Mikel and Essien. Both have pleaded that they are not dirty players, with Mikel saying, "Perhaps the [English] referees do not understand my style." Rough play is hardly a matter of "style," but Mikel has a point: The referees do play a key role, and the feeling persists that African referees allow a level of violence in tackling that is not permitted elsewhere. For this reason, the performance of the referees at the Nations Cup will be almost as closely watched as that of the players.