Let’s get this out of the way at the start. Everything Ian Wright said recently about the Africa Cup of Nations was eloquent and absolutely spot on.
For those who missed it Wright said on Instagram: "Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?"
"There is no greater honour than representing your country. The coverage is completely tinged with racism.
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"We played our Euros across 10 countries in the middle of a pandemic and there's no issue at all. But Cameroon, a single country hosting a tournament, is a problem.
"There are players getting asked if they will be honouring the call-ups to their national teams. Imagine if that was an England player representing the Three Lions. Can you imagine the furore?"
We’re not going to try and add anything here other to say than Wright is spot on. There remains to this day an inherent conscious bias about African players and that spills over to the way AFCON is viewed by media and fans. Look, even this year Edouard Mendy, a goalkeeper who was pivotal in his team winning the Champions League, was not even considered among the 30 best players in the world for the year 2021.
Put it this way, if you googled Euro 2020 before the tournament took place last summer you would have been greeted with articles like “XX players who will light up Euro 2020” or “XX players at Euro 2020 who your club could sign”. Do it for AFCON? “XX players who will be missing for your club during AFCON and what games they will miss.” This is despite the fact that there will be some very exciting players (young and old) playing in the upcoming tournament. For crying out loud, a week or so before Christmas articles were doing the rounds about fans of certain clubs celebrating on Twitter at reports the tournament might be cancelled.

Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, Minister of Sports and Physical Education looks at the Africa Cup of Nations trophy

Image credit: Getty Images

For the record you absolutely can question whether or not international tournaments should be hosted as Covid-19 cases continue to surge again in various parts of the world. But given that various other tournaments across sport are set to go ahead, while professional leagues and international club competitions are also continuing, and as Wright said you had a tournament last summer across multiple countries, that argument feels a tad obsolete.
Likewise you can point out that you are a fan of Club A, not Country A. You might be say, a fan of Liverpool and the Republic of Ireland. Why would you care about the fate of the Egyptian national team? And why shouldn’t you be annoyed that your star player would miss a handful of games in the middle of the season?
You want to know why? Because it matters for these players.
Not every player will spend seven years or more at a single club. A lot of players will go through four, five or even more clubs during a career. The one constant throughout that career will be representing their country. And for countries outside of the big European and South American giants these continental competitions are the best chance of international glory given the competitive and financial imbalance across the world that leaves winning the World Cup a relatively closed shop.
Heck even for a country like Argentina, one of the true giants of international football, this stuff matters. Look at the celebrations when they lifted the Copa America last summer. This is important to the players.

Lionel Messi of Argentina kisses the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after winning the final of Copa America Brazil 2021 between Brazil and Argentina at Maracana Stadium on July 10, 2021 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Image credit: Getty Images

Is it unfortunate that for logistical reasons it is easier to hold the tournament in January rather than summer? Of course it is. But would it be that tricky for leagues to move their winter breaks to cover the group stage of the tournament so the missing time was mitigated? No, it wouldn’t. But they don’t. And you know what else is unfortunate? When a player goes away with their country in an international break, picks up an injury and ends up missing months of action as a result. Want something else unfortunate? How about when big teams organise pointless friendlies after a gruelling season just to make some money and players pick up serious long-term injuries that can rule them out of summer tournaments for their country or even the start of the following season.
The point is this: injuries (or now Covid-19) can befall a player at any stage. Yes of course by not sending a player to the Africa Cup of Nations you may well have them for the entire month of January, but guess what, you also may not.
And yes, it is clubs who pay players’ salaries and make (most of them) rich beyond their wildest dreams. But they are also still people, people who want to the chance to represent their country and do their compatriots proud on the global scale.

Algeria squad return home as heroes after AFCON victory

Image credit: Eurosport

And this is ultimately the crux of the matter. At the heart of this issue, it’s about being decent human beings. If you’re someone who is getting worked up about your best player missing for a few weeks, or a media member who writes or talks about the tournament as if it’s a blot on the club calendar season, then you are part of the problem and you need to take a look in the mirror.
Because the Africa Cup of Nations is arguably the best tournament international football has. It is pure and it is passionate. It is surprising and it is exhilarating. It is the sort of tournament that makes you fall back in love with the game. And if your star player is going to play for Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria or Senegal then why not throw your support behind them? Not only will you enjoy the tournament far more but you may also discover a new favourite player. Maybe a younger star will shine and you can follow their career and remember the first time you watched them with a general sense of fondness.
Would that be so bad?
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