Congratulations to Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy, Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate, Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy, Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr and QPR’s Seny Dieng for lifting the 2021 Africa Cup Of Nations (AFCON) Trophy!
In a historic first AFCON win for Senegal, an incredible eight PFA members from seven clubs took part in the final, including Liverpool’s Mo Salah, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Aston Villa midfielder, Trézéguet. After scoring the deciding penalty in the final and three goals throughout the competition to become Senegal's all-time top goalscorer in AFCON tournaments, Sadio Mané was also named player of the tournament.
In January, 34 Premier League footballers went to Cameroon to play in the 33rd biennial international tournament, organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). With a further 18 players from the EFL joining them, it’s no wonder the influence of English club football could be felt all the way from London to Yaoundé. Much like last Summer’s EURO 2020 tournament, England was one of the best-represented club nations at the tournament, coming second only to France. Every tier of the English men’s professional football system was represented at AFCON, with players from the Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two on national duty.
An electric tournament saw favourites Nigeria knocked out in the second round, a stunning free kick from Comoros’ Youssef M’Changama and Liverpool teammates on opposing sides in the final. Just two months apart in age, and a difference of 10 Premier League goals between them, the Liverpool duo are more used to working together as part of the Kop's 'Fab Three'. Their partnership helped Liverpool win the 2019 Champions League and lift the 19-20 Premier League Trophy, and both have tasted AFCON final defeat, with Senegal runners-up in 2019 and Egypt losing to Cameroon two years before.
Two of the most decorated African players, both Mo and Sadio hold national goalscoring records. Mo is Egypt's all-time highest scorer in AFCON qualification with 19 goals and scored two goals and a penalty in the tournament to help Egypt get to the final. Scoring his third goal in the semi-final plus the tournament-winning penalty, Sadio became the all-time top scorer for Senegal in AFCON tournaments with eight goals.
Mo and Sadio’s Liverpool teammate, Naby Keita, also got on the AFCON scoresheet, scoring for Guinea against Zimbabwe. Arsenal’s Nicola Pépé scored two overall, to put Ivory coast ahead against Sierra Leone and then scoring the winner that sent 2019 AFCON Champions, Algeria, home. Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, Watford’s William Paul Troost-Ekong, Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traoré, Trézéguet, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Ismaïla Sarr also netted one goal apiece.
While all players at the tournament made their home nations proud, their absence in the domestic league was felt. In January, both Liverpool and Arsenal postponed matches due to a mixture of positive Covid tests and players away at AFCON. With Senegal and Egypt due to meet again in March for World Cup qualifiers, either three Egyptian players or six Senegalese ones could potentially be on international duty again in the midst of a domestic season. With just one week between Premier League fixtures and the opening World Cup game, and Boxing Day matches resuming eight days after the final, players will have an extremely limited timeframe to recover between domestic and international fixtures.
Including Mo and Sadio, 27 players from 15 Premier League clubs who featured at AFCON are still in the running to play at the World Cup. After qualification is confirmed in March, roughly half that number will have played in two international tournaments in one calendar year, in addition to a gruelling domestic season. For players from Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester and West Ham, that could mean playing in six competitions overall.
Since taking the helm last summer, PFA CEO, Maheta Molango, has raised concerns about scheduling after listening to players' concerns. He said, “It comes down to what members want. What do they see as being their priority? During the Premier League visits I did, there was one common theme – ‘we play too many games’. Fixture congestion was probably not the number one priority prior to visiting those clubs, but after talking to players and the managers, very clearly, there was an almost unanimous position, and I think they’re right.”
In November last year, Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk echoed these sentiments, expressing a desire for players to have a voice in discussions about international fixtures. He said, "After the season, in June, we will play four more Nations League matches. That's quite something. Of course, we can't complain, but the full schedule can cause injuries. In England, we have discussions on this subject with the Professional Footballers' Association. Soon there is a meeting scheduled of Liverpool players, including myself, with Arsène Wenger. That is about the plan to play a World Cup every two years."
As we saw at the Euros, AFCON and Copa America last year, English club football is influential worldwide. There is no international competition without footballers who play in the Premier League and English Football League, and our reach as a footballing nation is unmatched. However, the incredible performances we see from players who play domestically in England is about more than sheer talent – they are represented and protected by the world’s oldest sportspersons’ union.
Players are at the heart of the PFA, and their wellbeing is our utmost priority. We value our members’ views and take their concerns about fixture congestion and other issues seriously. That’s why the PFA will always advocate for better rights and conditions for players, so we can continue to see our members succeed on every national and international stage.