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Sorry Europe, Afcon is on

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is not happy. Neither is Chelsea boss Rafael Benitez, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez, Newcastle Boss Alan Pardew and Olivier Pantaloni, the coach of Ligue 1 side AC Ajaccio, who has lost five of his first team players to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Whine whine whine is what these managers and others like them have been doing over the years every time the Africa Cup of Nations comes around. They insist that Afcon be held in the off-season but in whose off-season I ask? For many African countries, this is the off-season.

From the tone that some of these managers use, it’s like they don’t consider the Afcon all that important, which is why some ask players not to honour their national team call-ups. Imagine asking a European player not to play in the Euros. How would their national team managers react to that?

It’s a catch 22 situation.

Players like Victor Moses, Cheick Tiote and the Toure brothers are fortunate enough to know that they dictate matters at their clubs. At least one Toure brother does. So even though they are absent, they will find their places still safely secure for them when they go back.

We have Fenerbahce defender Joseph Yobo, Emmanuel Adebayor from Tottenham and at least 50 players who ply their trade in France, all in South Africa to represent their national teams at the tournament.

Players like Demba Ba are almost lucky that Senegal didn’t qualify for the African showpiece. I doubt Chelsea would have bought him less than a month ago knowing that he would be travelling to Africa this month. So Senegal not qualifying, while unfortunate for us, worked well for Ba.

Naturally it’s every African footballer’s dream to play in Europe, hopefully for a big club, but players from the continent have to be super talented to be risked by teams that don’t want to spend a month or so every two years without that player. The past 13 months or so have been difficult on European clubs, especially clubs in France, with the African tournament being held in consecutive years.

So it’s perfectly understandable why many coaches in Europe and beyond are upset. But I beg them to understand this:

In 1956 the Fifa congress formed the Confederation of African Football, a body that would manage and encourage the growth of football in Africa. Caf, as it was quickly termed, then organised the first ever “Africa Cup of Nations” in 1957 but only three teams participated – Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

That tournament was held in February because that’s when the weather in Africa was fine and warm, perfect for playing football. It was the off-season for most countries.

Slowly but surely the competition grew to the 16 teams that now participate. West Africa have dominated proceedings over the past few decades, with countries like Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria owning the title on several occasions.

North Africa has had its fair share of wins with Egypt the most impressive, completing a treble of wins in the second half of the last decade.

South Africa has lagged behind in the tournament with only South Africa and Zambia having clinched the title once – Bafana Bafana in 1996 while Zambia are the defending champions.

This tournament has undoubtedly improved the quality of football on the continent, given that Africa usually has just five spots at the World Cup. So the Africa Cup of Nations is our best bet of playing with the best that Africa has to offer.

For a footballer, there isn’t, or at least there shouldn’t, be a moment as proud as when you wear your national team jersey at an international tournament. One such tournament starts this weekend.

While our superstars love to play in Europe and all over the world, they always find their way back home.

Players like Asamoah Gyan and Emmanuel Adebayor, who can’t quite bring themselves to quit international football, are a clear sign that this tournament is bigger than an individual. It’s bigger than one African country and it’s sentimentally bigger than playing for any club in the world. Note: I said “sentimentally”.

It’s the pride of Africa coming together to share in the excitement of the most popular sport in the world. It’s about seeing the talent that Africa has to offer to the world and to its citizens. It’s about nations that don’t always agree politically, casting their differences aside to come together as friendly competitors.

The Africa Cup of nations isn’t a symbol of Africa or an event in Africa – it is Africa.

So I say “sorry” to European clubs who will miss their players for a few weeks but the pride of being African is so strong and the players have got to represent.

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