How will a summer AFCON affect African Premier League players?
Background photo: Abdelrhman, CC BY 3.0
When the Premier League season concludes, many African players must join their national team to prepare for the African Cup of Nations in Egypt. The biannual event, formerly hosted in the winter, shifted to a summer schedule to accommodate European clubs tired of losing key players for an extended period in midseason. Although former West Ham scouting director Tony Henry lost his job for not rating African players for prejudicial reasons, other Premier League clubs began thinking twice and valuing African talent less due to their forced absence for a month every other year. Moving the tournament puts CAF players back on level terms with other foreign talent and thereby raises the continent's profile.
The decision doesn't come without a cost, however. Most of Africa is mired in hot, humid summer in June and July. Only South Africa and its neighbours far to the south experience cooler weather in those months. Players in European Leagues must reacclimate as soon as the plane lands. How can it not affect their performance?
Having adjusted to European conditions, their bodies aren't prepared for the sudden change even if they grew up in a sweltering clime. Fatigue sets in quicker for them and studies prove that tired athletes face a greater risk of injury.
If this AFCON had been staged in January, how much worse off would Liverpool's title challenge be without Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita in the lineup? Manchester City has no stars who play international football in Africa. Tottenham lost Son Heung-min for the Asian Cup while Harry Kane was injured. Spurs would also miss Victor Wanyama while he competed for Kenya. Would they have been active in the summer window anticipating that double whammy? Unai Emery can be thankful Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remained available. So too Alex Iwobi and Mohamed Elneny.
The Confederation of African Football understood the situation. More importantly, they understood how many African fans follow the Premier League and that bringing home players during the campaign affected ratings and advertising revenues for African networks. This is especially true in North Africa. Assuming hosting duties for Cameroon wouldn't appeal to Egypt so much in January and February.
CAF made the appropriate business decision. It will not fall on their shoulders when players suffer injuries due to the intense heat. The quality of play will affect their brand, though. Fans should expect the pace to be slower and for matches to peter out in the final half-hour even if the federation approves water breaks. FIFA permits but doesn't mandate time outs for squads to rehydrate 30 minutes into each half. A Brazilian court set a precedent in 2014, ordering FIFA to enforce water breaks in World Cup matches. CAF should follow suit but it remains unclear whether they will.
It is not too much to demand that a tournament that will have 24 countries should maximise the level of play. It benefits viewership for future tournaments as well as the players' health and wellbeing. The fans can only hope to have a tournament as compelling as the standard set by the Premier League.
Background photo: Omar Attallah, CC BY-SA 4.0