Why Liverpool’s Midseason Exodus To The Africa Cup Of Nations Is A Massive Red Herring
The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) often gets the blame
Played every two years and frequently scheduled midway through the English Premier League season, managers are quick to attack it
Ahead of the new season, this year’s edition has already been earmarked as problematic for 2019/20 champions Liverpool.
The Merseyside team will lose Sadio Mane, Mohammed Salah and Naby Këita to their national teams for nearly a month in January 2022
Jurgen Klopp went as far as to describe the tournament’s January scheduling as a “catastrophe” when it was announced over a year ago.
Astonishingly, he then went further implying that Liverpool may reconsider bringing African players to the club should the competition remain in this slot
“We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February – of course not.
“But if you have to make a decision about bringing in a player, it is a massive one because before the season you know for four weeks you don’t have them. That’s a normal process and as a club, you have to think about these things.”
Klopp is far from the first Premier League manager to take an extreme stance on the tournament.
Back in 2012, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini said that he hoped brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure would give AFCON a miss altogether to help the side’s domestic campaign
Many managers dislike international soccer and rue their players having to travel long distances to play games in quick succession, especially mid-season.
But the criticism of AFCON receives is disproportionate to other competitions
As a recent article by the Liverpool Echo recently pointed out, Klopp will only be without his three key players for two Premier League games, against Brentford and Crystal Palace.
That’s about the same number of games potentially missed by players such as Fabinho, Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson, whose pre-seasons have been delayed because of participation in the Copa America and Euro 2020.
You could argue those summer tournaments have a bigger impact on a side than the winter ones.
It delays crucial preseason preparations and means players take longer to gain match fitness, this doesn’t happen in a January tournament.
Yet no one would suggest that clubs would avoid signing South American and European internationals or suggest they gave a summer competition a miss.
Player welfare fallacy
As with many of Klopp’s most controversial statements, it was alongside up in a broader complaint about fixture congestion and player welfare.
“As long as nothing changes I will say it all the time. It is because it is about the players, not one second about me,” he said.
But player welfare has been at the heart of AFCON’s traditional winter slot.
The scheduling of a January competition has been because it was not feasible to play in the summer is in many locations; it is simply too hot or too wet at that time of year.
It’s the same logical reason why soccer in the vast majority of countries is a winter sport because playing 90 minutes every week in baking heat is not conducive to either good soccer or healthy athletes.
This was proved by the switch to a summer slot in the 2019 AFCON in Egypt, where games were played in sweltering conditions.
The result was that players suffered physically. The Ugandan captain even had to be stretchered off during a game partly due to the heat and a Nigerian player collapsed whilst training.
Games were played at a slower pace and there were fewer goals.
Impact on rest and recovery
It’s not just the immediate in-game dangers, which saw the Egypt 2019 organisers have both ambulances and hospitals on standby for heat-related incidents.
Expert sports scientist Dr Joel Mason told me that heat and humidity also impact rest and recovery.
“The research does indicate that playing in warmer conditions, especially if you’re not recently a climatized, to the climate, can have changes in your hydration status, which then changes your recovery timeline.
“Teams have to be really careful to be appropriately replacing their fluids, otherwise, they extend and prolong the recovery timeframe.
“We also know that if you do activity in one climate, and then the same level of activity, in a completely different climate, the warmer climate […] if it’s too warm will [cause the athletes to] report worse muscle soreness scores, worse body stress scores, and more fatigue.”
When coronavirus forced the Premier League season into summer fixtures, the impact of the far more modest British summer heat on player welfare was considered so significant it was a factor in the introduction of both in-game water breaks and allowing five substitutes.
According to tournament organisers the Confederation of African Football (Caf), the weather was key to the decision to play in January.
In Cameroon, which will host AFCON 2020, it is the rainy season during the summer.
A June completion would have meant that both heat and humidity would be a factor, as well as the potential for enormous rainstorms which create conditions that carry an injury risk in themselves.
The world revolves around Europe
The truth is African soccer rarely gets the respect it deserves.
As Klopp and Mancini’s comments show, managers don’t think twice before making statements they simply wouldn’t about other continents.
But as former-Caf vice-president Suketu Patel pointed out way back in 2012, when then-Manchester City director of Football Brian Marwood said the timing of the tournament was “wrong” and “bizarre,” the criticism AFCON reveals more about the critic than the continent.
“We can’t look at the situation purely from what the English league’s problems are,” Patel told the BBC at the time.
“The time has been agreed with Fifa [and] the climatic conditions in certain parts of Africa do not allow us to play in [northern hemisphere] summertime.”
“It can be extremely hot in the northern part [of Africa] and in some places, you have problems with rain.”
“You have to appreciate that there are a lot of players in China or Doha or the South African league, where the timing is not the same as the English league.”
“So if we were to go to June, you would have other leagues saying exactly what [Brian Marwood] is saying now.”
Just as when Jurgen Klopp took aim at the broadcasters last season, blaming them for the injuries his team had sustained following a noon kick-off, the real power to improve conditions for players lies elsewhere.
If there was the will amongst the top European clubs the fixture load could be reduced and games spread out to give player’s more recovery time.
But it’s not done because, particularly in England, the congested schedule is just too lucrative.