Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal has always been a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures. Inevitably due to this array, every couple years we have become accustomed to losing a player or two to the African Cup of Nations but not this year. For the first time in 9 years, Arsenal has no African players at the AFCON which is currently being hosted in Equatorial Guinea. This seems like it would be a good thing, but is it?
The AFCON could not be more poorly timed for European based African players, who every two years have to leave their clubs at a crucial time of the season to join up with their compatriots and challenge to be at zenith of African football. In recent years the Gunners have been able to absorb this loss in regards to the likes of out-of-form Gervinho or fringe players like Eboue. The problem arises when a regular starter such as former Gunner, Alex Song – who recently announced his retirement from international football – is called up. Losing a key player in the middle of the season, where every point becomes more valuable and more difficult, can have disastrous effects on a club’s campaign. Although squad depth allows bigger sides to absorb the impact, it is not an ideal situation, just ask Manchester City. Yaya Toure is undoubtedly an important cog in City’s machine, and in the 4 league games he has missed this season City have drawn 3 and lost 1. The loss coming against the Gunners this past weekend of course.
In the game against City, Arsenal clearly bossed the midfield thanks to a Cazorla masterclass but City was clearly missing a strong figure in the middle. While over in West London, Chelsea are fortunate to not be losing Mikel and Drogba. Mikel’s absence is due to Nigeria’s failure to qualify while Didier’s is due to his retirement from international football, although honestly speaking neither is on the front line of Chelsea’s trophy campaigns.
The tired old Club vs. Country debate is dusted off in these situations but the fact remains while other teams have the possibility of having a weakened squad, Arsenal have avoided it. Sir Alex Ferguson was always critical of the timing of the AFCON and clearly avoided African players not due to any unfair bias or lack of quality but out of protection of his own squad and campaign. Quinton Fortune is the last African player to come to mind to play in United’s XI, and he departed the club in 2006. Additionally due to the close proximity of games once the African players return from the Cup, although still physically fit they lack freshness and cannot jump back straight into the team. They need a recovery period to avoid accumulation of fatigue and injury. This presents a further dilemma for all parties concerned, should the African players risk representing their country and returning to their club to find their spot gone? Should clubs risk losing players at such a tense period? The dilemma limits the amount of Africans in big leagues, which stagnates the development of African football.
European football is undoubtedly the pinnacle of world football so the face-value solution would be to bring the African club football calendar in line with the European calendar. But sadly this is not as simple as it may seem due to the physical realities of the high summer temperatures in Africa. The current African club calendar avoids the hottest part of the summer season, meaning the exposure to this intense heat is limited to the biennial tournament which is currently being played in the late afternoon and evening.
The truth remains that the best African players will always make it into the top European sides. The contributions made throughout the season often outweigh the disadvantages of losing a player mid-season every two years. It is a relatively foreign occurrence to not have any African players representing Arsenal at the AFCON and while it may be disappointing to the Gunners African support it undoubtedly for now relieves Wenger of a weakened squad as we begin to gain valuable momentum.