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Jan 11, 2008

Club v country takes centre stage in Ghana

Almost thirty years after Uruguay became the first country to hoist the Jules Rimet trophy, came a four-year period that did as much to shape today's global football map as anything that preceded it.

In 1956, Europe witnessed the birth of the precursor to today's Champions League, the European Cup, a club competition that was joined on the calendar by an international equivalent - the European Championships - four years later. Meanwhile, sandwiched between the births of those two fledgling tournaments, came the launch in 1957 of the African Cup of Nations, a showpiece event overseen by the newly-formed Confederation of African Football.

At the time, such was the relatively undeveloped state of the world by today's hi-tech standards, that actions taking place in Europe had no impact on those in Africa and vice-versa. Real Madrid claimed the first five European Cups, while the USSR became the first winners of the European Championships. In Africa, meanwhile, Egypt lifted the inaugural Cup of Nations.

Over half a century later, the football world is barely recognizable from the one that gave birth to these competitions. Consider the numbers alone: The first European Cup had 16 entrants, which was twelve more than participated in the opening European Championships. In Africa, after South Africa were disqualified over their refusal to send a multi-racial squad, just three nations - Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia - took the field.

This season's Champions League had 76 entrants, while Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland will feature 16 teams, the same number that will compete for the African Cup of Nations in Ghana.

In Europe, the powers that be are largely satisfied with the lay of the land. Club football is king and everyone knows it. International breaks are neatly packaged, with countries playing twice in four days, while every couple of years, a European Championship or World Cup competition gets its fifteen minutes of fame. On the whole (the odd club verses country row over a friendly not withstanding) peaceful co-existence is the ongoing status quo.

However, the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world is much less harmonious, to the point that, should the other countries on the planet ever decide to wind up their national teams, European clubs would be at the front of the congratulatory queue. For the biggest teams, these countries are seen as no more than a supply line of potential with little else to offer.

Last year, the Copa America - an institution whose origins predate every other major international competition - was derided as being the cause of players returning for the European season tired and jaded. This year, it is the turn of the African Cup of Nations to be the scapegoat.

Since the European seasons began, January has been viewed with some sort of Armageddon-like trepidation. The complaining began early as coaches and managers voiced their dissatisfaction that they would be without key players for up to six weeks at a pivotal time in their season.

Of course, it is not a redundant point to observe that, by signing top quality African players, clubs left themselves open to this scenario and, as such, sympathy for these teams is tempered somewhat. It's not as if this tournament has just been added to the calendar, after all.

The clubs will argue that the proliferation of African players that now ply their trade in leagues across Europe necessitates a serious alteration to the scheduling of the tournament.

Still, the clubs' complaints about a major international tournament being played in the middle of their season arises not only from the fact that it is they who pay the wages of the players; but also, perhaps even more crucially, it is they that must deal with the consequences of having a player returned to them, tired from overexerting themselves in energy-sapping conditions.

Thus, the debate will rage on: what is to be done about this 'blot' on the club calendar? The easy suggestion is to move the event to the summer months and into the close season.

This would, of course, alleviate the pressure from the clubs and not put the players in a position where they have to return to fight for their place in the middle of a season. With the added bonus that players would not have to choose between their club and country, as the likes of Lauren and Bennie McCarthy have had to do in the past.

Indeed, this year's competition has already seen the rows escalate with Samuel Eto'o and Steven Pienaar over their departure dates. Something that could have been avoided with a summer switch.

Quite simply, the clubs will argue that the proliferation of African players that now ply their trade in leagues across Europe necessitates a serious alteration to the scheduling of the tournament.

However, aside from the logistical implications of finding enough stadia to host the games - floodlights would be more in demand in June and July - those who favour the current set-up will point to history as being a reason for why things should stay as they are. The tournament has always been played at this time of year so why should it move? Indeed, if the disruption to European soccer is so great, why should those leagues not take a hiatus during the tournament as the German Bundesliga does?

By far the most effective argument to keep the competition in January, though, is the climatic conditions that the players would have to face in an African summer. With temperature variation across the vast continent, January is simply the most comfortable time of year for all the nations involved and the CAF take that into consideration.

Playing at the height of summer in one of the hottest continents on the planet doesn't make for a convincing argument to change the date.

Caught in the middle of this debate, of course, are the players. Handsomely paid though they are to play for their clubs, those financial ties are superseded by the emotional attachment they have to their home nations.

Indeed, in the case of the majority of participants in the African Cup of Nations, the fact that opportunities to play on their home continent are rare makes players' desires to take part in the tournament all the stronger. With only six guaranteed spots for African teams at the 2010 World Cup, it is easy to see why the Cup of Nations holds the allure it does.

In truth, patriotism is the sole remaining trump card that international football associations have to play against the ever-powerful clubs. Even then, the increasing ambivalence of top performers towards friendly internationals, as well as a growing trend for players to 'retire' from the international game until just before a major championship, shows that pride in wearing the national team's shirt can be selective at best.

However, in an era when player power is stronger than it has ever been before, in this instance the on-field participants remain pawns in a bigger game played in boardrooms. Half a century ago, the men in charge of the game sat down on opposite sides of the world to lay out a legacy that would shape the game into what is known and loved today.

The time is now right for today's football leaders to accept that the world is more global than ever and, as such, set up that far-reaching conference call to establish how football can best adapt to keep everyone happy.

Whether an acceptable compromise can ever be reached is, of course, open to debate. Clubs are increasingly able to dictate to national associations and if the pressure on the CAF or FIFA becomes too great, the Cup of Nations may indeed become a summer event. Alternatively, if a television company throws enough money at it, then the timing may fall into a third party's hands.

What is for certain is that, like its predecessors, the 26th Cup of Nations is set to richly entertain as the next generation of African talent is unveiled. It may be tough on the fans of clubs who have lost their key players, but there is no doubt that the tournament is a unique feature of the football calendar and will continue to be so - no matter which month it takes place in.


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