Lucas Radebe, the former Leeds United and South Africa captain, expects more Premier League players will follow Steven Pienaar and decide not to play in future African Cup of Nations because of its scheduling.
Everton midfielder Pienaar had been due to lead the Bafana Bafana challenge when the tournament kicks off in Johannesburg today, but he retired from international football in October saying his body could no longer stand up to the demands of both club and country.
The announcement caused uproar in South Africa, with the vice-president of the national FA, Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana, describing Pienaar's decision as "selfish and egotistical".
There will be just 15 Premier League players representing their countries over the next three weeks, down from the peak of 34 in 2008. Radebe expects more to follow suit unless the organisers, the African Football Confederation (CAF) changes the timing of the tournament to avoid the clash with the English season.
"It's a very difficult one," Radebe said. "For Pienaar to retire in that way was a real shame. I would have liked to see him play his final games for Bafana Bafana at the Afcon because it would have been a good stage to bow out on," said the former centre-back who was part of the South Africa side that won the African title on home soil in 1996. "The Premier League is the most watched competition in the world and the local fans really look forward to seeing their heroes in action. It's a massive disappointment for them. I can understand why players make that decision, but there is too much pressure on them.
"Players in England know what side their bread is buttered on. The only way to change it is to bring the competition in line with the European leagues but that is something the organisers don't want to do. But now they are suffering because clubs know they will lose them for more than a month in the middle of the season and can be reluctant to let them leave."
South African President Jacob Zuma – renowned as a tough-tackling defender during his time as a prisoner on Robben Island – visited the national team this week.
He would have found a squad that contains just three players from English clubs: Kagisho Dikgacoi and Dean Furman ply their trade for Crystal Palace and Oldham Athletic, while Bongani Khumalo has yet to make a single appearance for Tottenham since joining in January 2011.
Of the victorious 1996 South Africa side, six players – Radebe, Andre Arendse, Mark Fish, Eric Tinkler, Shaun Bartlett and Phil Masinga – played in England. According to Radebe, who retired in 2005, that is a sign of how far Bafana have slipped in recent years. "When I was still playing there were several of us in the Premier League, but things have changed," Radebe said. "I would love to see Bafana going all the way and emulate 1996. But I think we're still short in quality. The main objective is to get to the knockout stages but we will probably hit a brick wall from that point."
Out of Africa
How Premier League numbers at the Cup of Nations have fallen:
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