Kanouté's Mali pledge dismays Tottenham

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The Independent Football

Tottenham will lose their leading goalscorer, Frédéric Kanouté, for up to a month after the striker said he will play for Mali at the African Nations Cup. The decision will be received badly at White Hart Lane and the 26-year-old is certain to become embroiled in an acrimonious club-versus-country row.

Tottenham will lose their leading goalscorer, Frédéric Kanouté, for up to a month after the striker said he will play for Mali at the African Nations Cup. The decision will be received badly at White Hart Lane and the 26-year-old is certain to become embroiled in an acrimonious club-versus-country row.

David Pleat, the caretaker manager who has overseen Tottenham's descent into the relegation zone, has already thrown down the gauntlet, saying that Kanouté's decision is a "tester" of whether the player "wants to stay and fight" for Spurs. The clear implication is that if Kanouté does travel to the African Nations Cup, which runs from 24 January to 14 February in Tunisia, he will be viewed as a deserter from the Tottenham cause.

"I should be going with Mali," said Kanouté, who has scored seven Premiership goals - of Tottenham's total of 19 - in 13 League games this season. "I have decided to play for them and I have told the club."

Pleat said that Kanouté's decision was not yet final. "His decision to play for Mali has not been confirmed," he said. "The matter is complicated. But it is a tester for him whether he wants to stay and fight. I don't think there is any way we can stop him going. We will have to see how the situation develops but obviously it is not in Freddie's or the club's interests for him to go."

It is obviously not in Spurs' interests to lose the player at such a vital stage of a difficult campaign. The 1-0 weekend defeat by Charlton was Tottenham's fifth at home in the Premiership this season and saw them drop to third from bottom of the table. Among the games that Kanouté could miss are home matches against Liverpool and Portsmouth and tricky cross-London trips to Fulham and Charlton.

Pleat's assertion that it is not in Kanouté's interests to play in Tunisia is presumably based on the notion that he risks making himself unpopular with his club's fans. Tottenham did, after all, offer him an immediate return to the Premiership after relegation with West Ham last season.

The flip side is that Kanouté stands to make a hero of himself in Mali, who he has seemingly been persuaded to represent by their coach, Henri Stambouli. Although Kanouté was born in France and has played for the French Under-21s side, he is eligible to play for Mali because his parents were born there. Fifa regulations allow players to "switch" nationality as long as they do so before representing a country at senior level.

Tottenham are unlikely to make much, if any, fuss over the absence of their other African Nations Cup player, Mbulelo Mabizela. The South African defender has made only six substitute appearances in the Premiership since signing in the summer and Spurs have lost five of those games.

Arguably the most keenly felt absence will be that of Jay-Jay Okocha from Bolton. The Nigerian playmaker has been instrumental in his side's positive start to the season, which has included a League win at Chelsea and a Carling Cup win at Liverpool to secure a berth in the last four of that tournament.

Okocha will miss both legs of the semi-final against Aston Villa, as well as a month of League action, to play for Nigeria. His compatriots Kanu of Arsenal, Joseph Yobo of Everton and Yakubu Ayegbeni of Portsmouth will also be missed by their clubs, although Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro will be missed less and might actually appreciate the chance to play some football.

Cameroon and Senegal are among the other nations who will be calling up players from English clubs.

ENGLISH CLUB PLAYERS HEADING FOR THE AFRICAN NATIONS CUP

ALGERIA: Yazid Mansouri (Coventry).

CAMEROON: E Djemba-Djemba (Man Utd), Geremi (Chelsea), S Olembe (Leeds).

CONGO: L Lua Lua (Newcastle, probably).

MALI: F Kanouté (Tottenham), M Sidibe (Gillingham).

NIGERIA: J-J Okocha (Bolton), N Kanu (Arsenal), J Yobo (Everton), C Babayaro (Chelsea), Y Ayegbeni (Portsmouth). Possibles: C Kanu (Peterborough), G Abbey (Macclesfield), I Okoronkwo (Wolves).

SENEGAL: A Faye* (Portsmouth), El-Hadji Diouf (Liverpool), S Diao* (Liverpool), A Cissé (Birmingham), H Camara (Wolves), L Sakho (Leeds).

SOUTH AFRICA: M Mabizela (Tottenham), G Koumantarakis (Preston).

ZIMBABWE: P Ndlovu (Sheff Utd).

* Injury likely to prevent attendance.

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