As the world’s top football clubs prepare to lose key players during the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), is the perennial club versus country issue still relevant?

Leading players including Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen and Achraf Hakimi will be in Ivory Coast for the continent’s showpiece event, which kicks off on 13 January and ends on 11 February – the tournament being officially branded as ‘2023’ even though the finals are taking place in 2024.

Although it will coincide with winter breaks across some European leagues, clubs will face a number of weeks without first-team regulars.

BBC Sport Africa has been looking at the impact of another mid-season Afcon on players, clubs, managers and fans.

Do players face a dilemma?

Brentford midfielder Frank Onyeka is preparing for his second Afcon with Nigeria, having featured in Cameroon in early 2022.

“I’ll always want to represent my country on the big stage. It’s an honour to wear the green and white shirt, so it’s something that I have to do,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“I was a boy playing in the streets of Nigeria and now I’m representing the Super Eagles at Afcon.

“It is a dream come true, because after watching Afcon legends in past years, now you’re going to be part of the team. I’m looking forward to it so much.”

Onyeka has been a regular in Brentford’s starting XI this season along with fellow Africans Bryan Mbeumo (Cameroon) and Yoane Wissa (DR Congo).

Forward Mbeumo has been ruled out of Afcon with injury, and all three players will be a huge miss to the Premier League club next month.

Onyeka says the trio have discussed the situation.

“It’s not going to be easy. But I know the team – they are strong,” the 25-year-old added.

“When someone leaves, another person is there to take their place.”

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has previously criticised the mid-season timing of the tournament, but Onyeka says Bees head coach Thomas Frank has been encouraging and reassuring.

“He’s happy for me to represent my country on this big stage. I’m really happy that he’s also my supportive coach, letting his players go off to Afcon,” he said.

Yet adjusting back to the Premier League was “quite difficult” for Onyeka after the last Afcon, where Nigeria exited in the last 16.

“When you get back the team is settled, they’re playing well,” he said. “Getting into the team again takes a long time.

“Mentally a player needs to be strong because it’s not easy leaving your team for four weeks and coming back.”

When should Afcon be held?

In 2017 the Confederation of African Football (Caf) decided to move the finals from its traditional January-February slot to June-July, with the 2019 edition in Egypt the first to be held in the European summer.

Yet the 2021 finals were pushed back to January and February 2022, in part to avoid adverse weather conditions in host nation Cameroon and because of disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

That switch triggered criticism from some quarters, which prompted former England striker Ian Wright to defend the tournament.

Jay-Jay Okocha won the Nations Cup with Nigeria in 1994 and says the timing of Afcon can have a big impact on players amid congested calendars.

“They’ve made it so difficult for African players by playing in January or starting the season and winter break very, very early,” Okocha told the BBC World Service.

“If they can move the World Cup to December because of the heat to suit the nations that are participating, why can’t they do something about the Nations Cup, and work together so that it will not affect anybody?

“I know a lot of coaches that refuse to sign African players because of the January (Afcon) window, but they will sign Brazilians who go to play in the Copa America in the summer. It’s not fair.”

Conflicted supporters

Ghana, like many of the teams who will feature at the Nations Cup, have a host of star names playing at some of Europe’s top clubs.

Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey, West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus and Crystal Palace forward Jordan Ayew are among those who will leave their respective Premier League sides to feature in Ivory Coast.

Issahaku Abdul-Mumen, president of Ghanaian Hammers, a West Ham fan club, feels “overwhelmed and sad” by the conflict of emotions surrounding countryman Kudus leaving east London mid-season.

“Without Kudus, Ghana may not go far. But Kudus plays in every West Ham game now,” Abdul told BBC Sport Africa from Ghana.

“Kudus joining West Ham was one of the best days of my life. He is one of the best exports from Africa.

“I’m a big fan of Afcon – Afcon is in me. I’m an African and this is for us. It was formed by our founding fathers.

“Kudus leaving [West Ham] will be a very, very, very bad time for us. But I’m trying to see that we can cope and we will try as much as possible to see life without Kudus.

“It’s a sad time for me as a West Ham fan but as a Ghana fan I’ll be happy.”

The situation facing club managers

If Hammers fans are worried about losing Kudus, they are not alone.

West Ham boss David Moyes says his side will “hugely miss” the 23-year-old forward, who has impressed with his all-round play.

“He’s a really good boy to work with and obviously his goals and assists are the things that are standing out,” Moyes said.

“It is a huge blow [to lose him] because he scores goals and makes goals. We’re going to have to find other ways.”

Yet Kudus’ national manager, Black Stars coach Chris Hughton, believes the club versus country row is a thing of the past.

He says coaches across Europe are now more prepared when their players leave for the tournament, and that Afcon is no longer a reason not to sign African stars.

“Most clubs and head coaches now accept that when they take an African player there’s a chance that they will lose him for a period during the African Cup of Nations,” the 65-year-old said.

“So it [the club vs country row] is one very much of the past. I think the modern club and modern technical staff accept that this is going to happen.”

The 2025 edition of Afcon, which will be held in Morocco, was expected to revert back to dates in June and July – but that will now clash with Fifa’s expanded 32-team Club World Cup.

With no obvious solution, the continent’s top players could be the subject of another tug of war in 18 month’s time.

Source: BBC

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