Following the numerous articles written on the subject of the effect of the African Cup of Nations on the Premier League, shaping in particular the fortunes of Portsmouth and Chelsea, I would like to take a short look at the La Liga teams which might suffer most from the exodus of African players to Ghana.
Spanish football is home to far fewer African players than the English game, this is a fact. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Spanish football will not be on the end of such a sizable blow with the departure of players to the CAN, unlike their English and French premier league counterparts.
Perhaps this dearth is a reflection of the less diverse nature of Spanish society (the first time I visited Barcelona I was hugely shocked by the lack of black people on the streets), although I would hasten to add the disclaimer that Africans are currently arriving to the Peninsula via the Canary Islands by the boat-load, which could well result in a notable change. And this lack of diversity could be to blame for those rare but noisome incidents of Spanish footballing racism that have made so many headlines in the English media, including the (according to some — not in an opinion I share — harmless) Aragones comment and Eto’o’s picking-up-the-ball-mid-game act.
However, those Africans who have come over in recent years have tended to play starring roles in their clubs’ successes, and this is reflected in the importance of those who are currently in or on their way to Africa to their respective clubs. In times past, Finidi George of Real Betis truly lit up the league, whilst nowadays Carlos Kameni between the sticks at Espanyol is one example of an African player who has successfully adjusted to Spanish football; the brilliant goalkeeper will be sorely missed by the Catalan high-flyers, who are one of the form teams in La Liga.
Joining the athletic Kameni in the Cameroonian fold will be fiery Samuel Eto’o, whose ability to court controversy regardless of the situation has offered no exception on this occasion (although one might reasonably rejoin that in this particular instance, Eto’o had little part to play). In a case similar to the Pienaar-Yakubu dispute, the Cameroonian Football Association have allowed Eto’o to remain at FC Barcelona for a further two matches in order to regain fitness prior to the ACN kick-off, prompting Bernd Schuster, never one to eschew a media opportunity, to quip sarcastically that “Eto’o is the king of Cameroon, but [Real Madrid’s Mahamadou] Diarra isn’t yet [the king of] Mali”.
Schuster is not the only one fuming about this situation. Whilst Real Madrid will most certainly miss the solid protection afforded by Diarra, particularly in the absence of the incapacitated Pepé, Sevilla are even more absence-ridden, with two key players in Frédéric Kanouté (who has 17 goals from 24 appearances this season, including 8 league goals) and former Lens captain Seydou Keita both included in the Mali squad for the Championships. Another absence in AndalucÃa comes in the shape of a player who would have been Kanouté’s replacement, had the Malian departed over the summer: Ivorian striker Arouna Koné.
Koné will be accompanied in Ghana by Yaya Touré, who has been a revelation since joining FC Barcelona in the summer, his performances putting him on a par with Eto’o and Kanouté in the “most influential African footballer in La Liga” stakes. Barcelona, however, will be routing against an Ivory Coast team that contains such stars as Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Touré. Finally, Getafe striker Ikechukwu Uche, who has been linked with a move to the Premiership, despite having scored just one goal in thirteen appearances this season, will compete for a place in Berti Vogt’s much-fancied Nigeria side, although many English sides will be hoping that Nigeria (and Uche) do not perform to their highest abilities through January and early February.
Past records will offer some encouragement for La Liga managers and fans. No Spain-based player is included in the squad of hosts Ghana, who have the second most CAN victories (4), and have reached the final on no fewer than seven occasions, a record unrivalled by any other national side. Record winners Egypt (5 victories) include just four Europe-based players, none of whom play their trade in Spain.
However, Barcelona and Espanyol fans may wish to avert their eyes, since Cameroon have also won the competition on four occasions, and will be expected to progress in a group containing little threat outside of Egypt; although it is worth remembering that Sudan, also in Cameroon’s group, have been named a possible outside threat by many African football commentators.