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28.11.2005 Sports News

Showpiece event needs our showmasters

By Statesman
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THE high profile leagues in Europe are heating up and heading into the home straight. African countries are also getting ready for the Cup of Nations with their best available materials and once again, the endless talk about club versus country controversy and the timing of the African Cup of Nations is making the rounds again.

It is an endless cycle, one that we go through every two years and one that it seems we might never find a solution to.

Throughout every round of debate the burning question has remained the same: How do you strike a balance between players' desire to represent their country equally, when there is the need to ferment the bank balance and secure the future while pleasing their paymasters?

It is an intriguing debate that must test the commitment level of the players as far as it can.

Already there are reports that the African Cup of Nations will miss on arguably the biggest name on the continent now. Samuel Eto'o has been in devastating form for Spanish giants Barcelona but a day after helping the Catalans trounce Real Madrid 3-0, it emerged that the Cameroonian will not feature for his country in Egypt.

“Eto'o intends not to go to the Cup of Nations in order to concentrate only on Barca,” ran a headline in the Barcelona-based sports daily, El Mundo Deportivo, on Monday.

“Samuel is trying to provoke the issue so that he doesn't have to go to the African Cup of Nations because he doesn't want to miss a month of Barca's season.

“Eto'o has placed the club above everything and carrying on playing in the Spanish league will permit him to keep trying for the European Golden Boot,” commented the newspaper.

The story is not full proof yet but the latest stance varies greatly with the one expressed by the same player a few months ago when he said he was prepared to fly between Cairo and Barcelona in order to fulfil his commitment to both parties.

We might yet see Eto'o at the Cup of Nations in Cairo but his present predicament is one that many African players are likely to suffer. Would Chelsea, for instance, be willing to let Michael Essien and Didier Drogba leave for potentially up to a month in January when the English Premiership will most likely be at the most competitive stage?

The answer is likely to be negative but when Maurinho says he can't stand in the way of players wanting to play for their national teams, including the Africans, it should gladden the hearts of those of us with interest there. But even the charismatic Portuguese, who seems capable of fixing everything under the sun, football will be one of those frowning on the Cup of Nations for good reasons.

He will lose Didier Drogba, who for all the flack in the past, is Chelsea's best bet for goals. His ability to muscle his way through tight defences and score goals will be one of the major factors the reigning English champions will be counting on for goals in what will be a really competitive period of the Premiership.

Michael Essien may have struggled against Manchester United but Chelsea know he is crucial. And so also is Ghana for whom Essien has gone from another member of the midfield to an inspirer and a symbol of Ghanaian football success. There have been suggestions that Essien might not participate in the Cup of Nations. That view was given some credence when he missed the Black Stars' friendly against Saudi Arabia and weeks earlier when the Graphic Sports quoted coach Ratomir Dujkovic as saying he might take a second rate team to Egypt. Dujkovic is livid about the timing about the Cup of Nations and about the pressures it brings to bear on the players.

He is not alone. The critics have questioned why Africa is persisting with holding the tournament every two years. And they wonder how Confederation of African Football (CAF) decides to organise the tournament in January at all cost when the European leagues are at their most competitive stage. Holding the tournament in January seems to make sense. We are on a continent where June is traditionally a rainfall period. While the Europeans take their holidays in summer, those of us in Africa have pressing rain related issues like flooding to deal with.

It, therefore, makes scheduling the Cup of Nations to suit the closure of the European season a major risk. And that won't solve the problem of player fatigue and burn out that most people often complain about.

The regularity of the Cup of Nations appears to be a genuine concern which has triggered suggestions that Africa should go the way of South America that switched their Coppa America to every four years in protest against the fixture congestion.

Yet on the balance, there are more compelling reasons to host the Cup of Nations every two years instead of the four. On a continent where we rarely monitor our players, qualifiers for the Cup of Nations and the tournament itself is the only means of seeing those players. For the football fan that means the world.

More solid is the point that the Cup of Nations has and continues to be the easiest vehicle for the enhancement of facilities on a continent that is lagging far behind in the area of infrastructure.

The 2010 Nations Cup has attracted unprecedented interest and if Senegal for instance get it, it will be the catalyst for strengthening their infrastructure base. In Ghana, if all goes on well Tamale will have an international class stadium that will hopefully reduce the senseless incidents that frequently disrupt league games.

I watched the 2002 African Cup of Nations in Mali and left in awe about what the tournament had done for that country. The legacy was five brand new stadiums and housing units many countries would simply love.

Therefore, in as much as the Cup of Nations might be causing ripples in England and the major European leagues, it seems it is a necessary evil we have to live with.

When Chelsea chased Essien all summer, they must have been aware that it was Ghana that exposed him to the international scene at the Under 17 and kick started the process of making a star. And like most other European clubs, they might also have been aware that every two years in January, the continent converges for its greatest football showpiece.

And with the express backing of the rules, the countries can always earn what is due them and the players will as well turn out. Isn't it intriguing that despite all the so-called problems, Jay Jay Okocha has regularly responded to invitations to feature for Nigeria in every Cup of Nations since 1994. Didier Drogba, I imagine will be keen to take on the world in Egypt next year and so also would Ghana's Essien and Appiah, as well as Adebayor of Togo and all the names that make us proud as Africans.

The African Cup of Nations is our show piece event which requires our show masters even if their paymasters are unhappy about that.

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