Players and coaches demand respect for Africa Cup. They feel tournament is undervalued in Europe

Mon, Jan 22, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

Players and coaches demand respect for Africa Cup. They feel tournament is undervalued in Europe

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) - Some of the best soccer in the world is being played at the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

But away from the African continent, few seem to be paying attention.

Africa Cup games are mostly not freely accessible for fans in Europe to watch, while news about the biennial tournament featuring 24 of the continent's best national teams is often overshadowed by news about domestic competitions.

With this edition of the Africa Cup being played at the same time as Europe's "big five" leagues - in England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany - the tournament is in danger of being overlooked.

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That's despite teams boasting star names like Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen and Riyad Mahrez, along with a spectacle provided by enthusiastic fans dancing in the stands and on-field passions stirred up by old rivalries. The matches have been exciting, even spectacular - not one of the 24 group games played before Monday had ended in a scoreless draw.

Yet the Africa Cup doesn't get close to the same attention that a World Cup or European Championship attracts. Players and coaches at the tournament think it's not shown the respect it deserves.

"This is a fantastic tournament, top organized in a beautiful country, with top infrastructure and with all the top players," Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet told The Associated Press. "People go to the stadium in Manchester or in Liverpool to see these players playing. But why don't we show this live all over Europe on TV? I think that's where the respect starts."

Coaches and clubs in Europe's top leagues have been known to put pressure on African players not to play for their national teams or to skip the tournament, and it can be a balancing act.

Bayern Munich coach Thomas Tuchel asked Morocco not to play Noussair Mazraoui until its final group game because of injury concerns.

Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana joined the team late because he was playing for Manchester United a day before Cameroon's opening match against Guinea. He ultimately missed the game despite his rush to make it.

Cape Verde federation president Mario Semedo criticized Portuguese club Portimonense for pressuring Helio Varela to miss the tournament. It should have been a highlight for the 21-year-old forward. Cape Verde became the first team to clinch its place in the last 16.

"The European coaches have no clue about African football," Saintfiet said. "They still think we play on a - sorry for my words - on a (expletive) pitch in a (expletive) stadium. But Africa is developed, Africa is top. Cameroon (the last Africa Cup) was fantastic. This is fantastic. Europe must open its eyes. But also television must open its eyes. These are big tournaments that deserve all respect, not only from the clubs or the coaches, but also from the media."

Players at the Africa Cup have repeatedly spoken of their passion to play for their countries at the tournament, of the pride they feel when they wear their national teams' jerseys.

Ghana goalkeeper Richard Ofori says it shouldn't matter what other people think of the tournament if Africans take pride in it themselves.

"We must all support it as Africans, and then we raise our game, and then we make sure our tournament becomes successful and beautiful," Ofori told the AP. "That's the most important thing. What a European nation thinks or whatever they are showing or doing or whatever, it's not our problem. The problem for Africans is that we must focus on our game."

Senegal star Sadio Mane suggested the western media's focus was skewed toward the big leagues in Europe and that fans were missing out as a result.

"For you guys, if you don't play in Europe, it doesn't matter. I'm not around as a football player," said Mane, who plays club soccer for Saudi team Al-Nassr.

Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly said playing for a country is "something very special" and that players must speak more about the importance of playing at the Africa Cup.

"I don't understand why some people and some players respect more the clubs than the country. But you know, Europe is not the same," Koulibaly told the AP. "Sometimes I might get some coach who didn't want me to come to AFCON, but I always go against them. It's my choice. My choice is to play for my country. If they are not happy, I will find another club that respects my country and respects all the work I'm doing."

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