Europe feels pinch while Africa's best seek glory

It is probably of little comfort to the likes of Arsène Wenger, David Pleat or Sam Allardyce, but they have got off lightly. The call-up of players to the African Nations Cup has hit their counterparts in France far harder than it has the managers of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur or Bolton Wanderers.

Every year another few Africans join the Premiership, and every two years the continent holds its championship, calling up those players during a crucial part of the European season. The same biennial charade is then played out as managers drag their feet over releasing those players before reluctantly letting them go after much arm-twisting and horse-trading.

But while Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Frédéric Kanouté are much prized in England, and their loss could be felt for up to four weeks, in France the situation is much worse. There are 20 players from English clubs now in Tunisia for the Nations Cup, and not just from the Premiership, as Peter Ndlovu, of Zimbabwe and Sheffield United, will attest. But the total of French-based players is a massive 79. Lens, mid-table in Le Championnat, have lost four first-teamers alone to the tournament which kicks-off tomorrow night in the Tunis suburb of Rades.

That opening game sees the north African hosts, staging the championship for the second time in a decade, facing Rwanda, who knocked out one of Africa's traditional super-powers, Ghana, in the qualifying stages. It was an incredible feat for the east Africans to reach their first Nations Cup, even more so when you realise that the genocide that took place in their country a decade ago made any semblance of normal life, let alone football, virtually impossible.

The Rwandan side is full of foreign-born players who have become nationals in order to play in the tournament. Six players were born in neighbouring Burundi and three in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the goalkeeper is from Cameroon.

The world pricked up its ears in the early 1990s when Pele said he believed an African nation would soon win the World Cup. While several African individuals in that time have looked like world-beaters, Cameroon and Senegal remain the only teams to have reached even the last eight of the World Cup. Michel Platini, now on the executive committee of Fifa, the world game's governing body, has addressed the apparent decline of African football. The great French playmaker has also countered what Pele said by criticising African football this week.

"I don't think the African teams are sufficiently complete to win a World Cup," he said. "Individually they have their qualities, but they are also going to have to rediscover their flair." He added: "Who is today's great African footballer? There's no one who impresses me. Before, there was Abedi Pele and George Weah, but today? The European Footballer of the Year award [open to non-Europeans since 1995] is contested only by Europeans and South Americans.

"European clubs have stereotyped the African player a little: he is a big guy in midfield or a quick forward. There is no playmaker. Players like El Hadji Diouf [of Senegal] or Samuel Eto'o [of Cameroon] are not up there with Weah, or even Michael Owen, Raul, Francesco Totti or Ronaldo."

Cameroon are the holders of the trophy and winners of the past two tournaments, but despite the impressive recent record of the Indomitable Lions, who famously pushed England to extra time in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, they have also come under attack from Platini. He said: "When I see Cameroon play they are very serious. They don't concede many goals, but don't score many either. In the last couple of Nations Cups there weren't high-scoring games, it was always 0-0, 1-0 or 1-1. They lost the qualities which they had before."

Cameroon, who are set to parade a new all-in-one strip in their opening game against Algeria on Sunday, will create Nations Cup history not just in fashion but on the pitch too if they win a third successive competition. Geremi, of Chelsea, will play a large part in that attempt, as will their captain, Rigobert Song, now with Lens but formerly of Liverpool and West Ham United. The Nations Cup will presumably also provide some welcome relief from the pressure at Leeds United for Salomon Olembé, another Cameroon regular.

Despite falling short in Platini's estimation, Diouf and his team-mates with Senegal's Lions of Teranga are likely to push Cameroon all the way to the final in Rades next month. The finest year in the west Africans' footballing history was in 2002 when they reached the final in Mali before losing on penalties, and then lost only on a golden goal to Turkey in the World Cup quarter-finals. But they lost their inspirational coach, Bruno Metsu, last year and further responsibility will fall on Diouf, because their playmaker, Khalilou Fadiga, is out of football for the foreseeable future with a heart complaint. Liverpool fans will also be able to see their midfielder Salif Diao in action, not forgetting the Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Henri Camara.

If Senegal misfire that could open the door for Nigeria - Okocha and Kanu among others - to win their first Nations Cup in 10 years. The choice of venue this year should bring back some happy memories. It was here by the Mediterranean Sea, back in 1994, that they beat Zambia 2-1 to win the tournament. Since then they have reached only one final, losing to Cameroon on home soil in Lagos four years ago.

Anything but reaching the final will be seen as failure for those three teams, but for one manager there is no such pressure. Mick Wadsworth, a former Newcastle United coach, has been in charge of the Democratic Republic of Congo for only two months. His team has little money and he is without his star striker Shabani Nonda. Lomano LuaLua, the somersaulting forward who has been long on the fringes of Newcastle's first team, will therefore get the chance to shine in a tournament that ends on Valentine's Day, but which from an English point of view, is anything but a love-in.

AFRICAN NATIONS CUP FIXTURES

GROUP A: Tunisia, D R Congo, Guinea, Rwanda.

GROUP B: Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali.

GROUP C: Cameroon, Algeria, Egypt, Zimbabwe.

GROUP D: Nigeria, Benin, Morocco, South Africa.

(All kick-off times GMT)

TOMORROW

Group A

Tunisia v Rwanda (6.30pm) Rades

SUNDAY

Group A

D R Congo v Guinea (1.0pm) Tunis

Group C

Zimbabwe v Egypt (3.30pm) Sfax

Algeria v Cameroon (6.0pm) Sousse

MONDAY 26 JANUARY

Group B

Kenya v Mali (1.0pm) Bizerte

Burkina Faso v Senegal (6.0pm) Tunis

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY

Group D

Nigeria v Morocco (1.0pm) Monastir

Benin v South Africa (5.0pm) Sfax

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY

Group A

Guinea v Rwanda (1.0pm) Bizerte

Tunisia v D R Congo (3.15pm) Rades

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY

Group C

Cameroon v Zimbabwe (3.30pm) Sfax

Algeria v Egypt (6.0pm) Sousse

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY

Group B

Kenya v Senegal (1.0pm) Bizerte

Burkina Faso v Mali (6.0pm) Tunis

SATURDAY 31 JANUARY

Group D

Nigeria v South Africa (1.0pm) Monastir

Benin v Morocco (5.0pm) Sfax

SUNDAY 1 FEBRUARY

Group A

Tunisia v Guinea (1.0pm) Rades

D R Congo v Rwanda (1.0pm) Bizerte

MONDAY 2 FEBRUARY

Group B

Mali v Senegal (1.0pm) Tunis

Burkina Faso v Kenya (1.0pm) Bizerte

TUESDAY 3 FEBRUARY

Group C

Cameroon v Egypt (1.0pm) Monastir

Algeria v Zimbabwe (1.0pm) Sousse

WEDNESDAY 4 FEBRUARY

Group D

Benin v Nigeria (5.0pm) Sfax

Morocco v South Africa (5.0pm) Sousse

SATURDAY 7 FEBRUARY

Quarter-finals:

1-Group A v 2-Group B (4.0pm) Rades

1-Group B v 2-Group A (1.0pm) Tunis

SUNDAY 8 FEBRUARY

Quarter-finals:

1st Group C v 2nd Group D (1.0pm) Monastir

1st Group D v 2nd Group C (4.0pm) Sfax

WEDNESDAY 11 FEBRUARY

Semi-finals: (3.0pm) Rades; (6.0pm) Sousse

FRIDAY 13 FEBRUARY

Third place play-off: (1.0pm) Monastir

SATURDAY 14 FEBRUARY

Final (2.0pm) Rades

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