Malian international Abdoulaye Doucouré, midfielder for the English club Everton, rarely speaks in the press. His interview published on November 5 by 90 Football, a specialized application, however, did not go unnoticed. The former Stade Rennes player has announced that he will not participate in the upcoming African Cup of Nations (CAN), which will take place in Ivory Coast from January 13 to February 11, to focus on his club career.

History does not say whether Abdoulaye Doucouré was pressured by his club, which extended his contract for one year in May. But as the final phase approaches, it is very likely that other African internationals will decide to spare themselves the trip to Ivory Coast, voluntarily or at the insistence of their employers. Thus, the Cameroonian André Onana, goalkeeper of Manchester United and the Indomitable Lions, would hesitate, according to information from the American media ESPN, to compete in the competition, while his club is in difficulty in the English Premier League and the Champions League.

“Pressure from clubs on players can exist, it’s nothing new. This does not concern all clubs, of course, and in the vast majority of cases, the players really want to play in the CAN and they participate, even if this may not please their employers,” puts Sébastien Desabre into perspective, the French coach of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The fact remains that clubs can effectively influence their players, particularly if they are in the fight for maintenance or, on the contrary, in the race for European qualification. “We’re going to tell him that we need him, that he’s important,” adds Sébastien Desabre.

Hivernal market

Others go further, making African internationals understand that their presence in the final phase with their selection could cost them their starting place on their return from Africa or slow down their progress at club. Thus, a few weeks before CAN 2022 in Cameroon, the Algerian Andy Delort, the Ghanaian Felix Afena-Gyan and the Burkinabé Yacouba Nasser Djiga, then respectively under contract with OGC Nice, AS Roma and FC Basel, had gave up competing in the competition.

“A player’s sporting situation can also encourage him to decline selection,” explains a player agent on condition of anonymity. Take the case of Hugo Ekitike, the Paris-Saint-Germain striker. He has Cameroonian origins and Samuel Eto’o, the president of the Cameroonian Football Federation, tries to convince him to play for the Indomitable Lions. But as he has not played this season with his club, he will try to leave during the winter transfer window [from January 1 to 31] and it will not be the time for him to compete in the CAN. »

European clubs are increasingly reluctant to release their African internationals during the season. The tensions before the CAN 2022 between, on the one hand, the European Club Association (ECA) and the World Leagues Forum (WLF), on the other the Confederation of African Football (CAF), had been the best demonstration. The clubs had tried to postpone the final phase, scheduled for January 9 to February 6. In vain. But they still managed to have the players released on January 4th instead of December 27th. In 2024, footballers will have to join their selection on January 2, eleven days before the start of the matches.

“There will be pressure.”

For this edition, Tom Saintfiet, the Belgian coach of Gambia, expects European clubs to once again try to keep African internationals in the championships as long as possible. “European clubs are powerful, there will be pressure, like in 2022, because a CAN in January and February does not suit them,” he recalls. The subject is so sensitive that Aurelio De Laurentiis, the president of the Naples club, declared in August 2022 that he would no longer recruit African players, “unless they agree to give up playing in the CAN”. The leader complied with his commitment, no African having signed since that date with the reigning Italian champion.

Bernard Serin, his counterpart from FC Metz, also does not hide his exasperation while his club, which is playing to remain in Ligue 1, will probably have to do without at least four players during the CAN. “In 2017, CAF sold us the idea that the CAN will now take place in June and July. But this only happened once, in 2019 in Egypt, because in Cameroon in 2022 and in Ivory Coast in 2024, it is the rainy season. We must also understand ourselves: the players leave at the beginning of January, and for those who go far in the competition, they only return a month and a half later,” explains the French manager, annoyed that the players whose wages he continues to pay salaries during the CAN come back “tired, sometimes injured”.

These recurring controversies should die down for at least four years, since the CAN 2025 in Morocco and 2027 in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya should take place in June and July thanks to the favorable climatic conditions in these regions at this time. of the year.