In the heart of Ivory Coast, the Africa Cup of Nations is showcasing some of the finest soccer on the planet. Yet, this biennial tournament, featuring 24 of the continent’s premier national teams, struggles to capture the attention it deserves beyond Africa’s borders. The tournament’s clash with Europe’s “big five” leagues—England, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany—adds to the challenge, potentially relegating it to the shadows of the global football spotlight.
Despite the presence of football luminaries such as Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen, and Riyad Mahrez, the tournament battles for recognition. Domestic competitions have overshadowed the Africa Cup despite the fervor coming from ecstatic fans and the on-field intensity born out of historical rivalries. Impressively, none of the 24 group stage matches played before Monday concluded in a scoreless draw, underscoring the tournament’s excitement and competitiveness.
Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet expressed frustration, stating, “This is a fantastic tournament, top-organised in a beautiful country, with top infrastructure, and with all the top players. But why don’t we show this live all over Europe on TV? I think that’s where the respect starts.”
The issue extends beyond indifference, with coaches and clubs in Europe’s elite leagues occasionally pressuring African players to forgo representing their national teams or to skip the Africa Cup. Bayern Munich’s Thomas Tuchel, for example, urged Morocco to rest Noussair Mazraoui due to injury concerns, revealing the complex balance African players must strike between club and country commitments.
Cape Verde federation president Mário Semedo condemned Portuguese club Portimonense for pressuring Hélio Varela to miss the tournament, despite Cape Verde securing a spot in the last 16.
Saintfiet criticised the prevailing ignorance about African football in European coaching circles, stating, “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 at the top. Europe must open its eyes.”
Players at the Africa Cup consistently emphasise their pride in representing their countries, urging fellow Africans to support the tournament wholeheartedly. Ghana goalkeeper Richard Ofori asserted, “We must all support it as Africans, and then we raise our game, and then we make sure our tournament becomes successful and beautiful.”
Sadio Mané emphasized that the Africa Cup offers a distinctive and vibrant football experience that the global audience frequently overlooks while pointing out the skewed focus of Western media towards Europe’s major leagues.
Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly echoed these sentiments, expressing disappointment in players who prioritise clubs over country. “I don’t understand why some people and some players respect the clubs more than the country,” he said. “If they are not happy, I will find another club that respects my country and respects all the work I’m doing.”
Originally written by: CIARÁN FAHEY