That the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) isn’t exactly a popular item on football’s global calendar – due to its timing mainly, even if that bit is no longer set in stone (‘stone’ being the competition’s historically bothersome mid-season slot) – especially from the perspective of the men who run Europe’s biggest clubs, has never been a secret.
It was only a matter of time, really, before someone expressed those hostile sentiments publicly and explicitly – and now they have.
It had to take, of course, someone who cared absolutely not how almost a fifth of the world’s population would feel about his opinions – someone like Aurelio De Laurentiis, the notorious Napoli owner.
“Guys,” De Laurentiis said on theWall Street Italia talk show, “don’t talk to me about the Africans anymore.
“I love them, but either they sign a waiver and pull out of playing in the AFCON because otherwise… they’re never available. We are the suckers who pay their wages.”
De Laurentiis isn’t a man known to pull punches, whether it comes to dismissing managers or speaking his mind, and this was quite the knockout to the AFCON.
He doesn’t always get his act right, but this wasn’t one of the arrows a man like him has the tendency to pull from his quiver, without much thought, before firing at some random target.
This, in all likelihood, was a statement that came from a very deep place, an expression of misery he has long bottled.
He has finally let go of that star, Senegal Kalidou Koulibaly, this summer, but for probably as good a fee as you could get for a player who just crossed to the wrong side of 30 (in the region of £33 million).
And Koulibaly – a newly-minted AFCON champion after skippering Senegal to maiden glory earlier this year – had every reason to take exception to his former boss’ views.
“It’s up to him,” Koulibaly, a player who ordinarily prefers to stay out of headlines that have nothing to do with his on-field performances, said of De Laurentiis.
“For me the most important thing is to respect everybody. I always respect everybody. When I played [at Napoli] I was playing also for Senegal, and I won the AFCON. It’s true that it was a difficult moment for them when we went to the AFCON, but I’m really happy today (to have won it).
“We have to respect the national team also. You cannot speak about an African national team like this, I think. You have to have respect like you have for the other national teams. As captain of Senegal, I think it’s not a good way to speak about the national team, but I respect what he thinks. If he thinks the team can play without African players, it’s up to him.”
Thing is… even De Laurentiis knows that’s just not possible.
African footballers have grown in influence and in value over the years, cherished as much for their priceless capabilities on the pitch as for the wider market they open up to the many clubs that have them on their books, and you could count on one hand how many top European sides could be so confident of doing well without them.
Napoli, regardless of what De Laurentiis might claim, isn’t among that exclusive few.
The Stadio Diego Armando Maradona is still home to three more Africans even after Koulibaly’s departure – all three of whom have, incidentally, collected medals at either the most recent AFCON or the edition just before it.
One of those, Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen, got signed two years ago for the second-highest fee ever paid for an African footballer. The latest recruit, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, was brought in as one of the first pieces of business the Parthenopeans got done this summer, an impressive loan spell from Fulham last season being rewarded with a permanent deal with little hesitance.
And you can be sure that, despite apparently being such a great inconvenience, Africans will continue to be a fixture at Napoli; Zambo Anguissa will almost certainly not be the last to walk through the club’s doors.
African footballers, like their South American peers – who, by the way, De Laurentiis also took aim at in his now-infamous tirade – are able to light up any squad, any club, and they’d continue to do so without having to turn their backs on their continent’s flagship competition.
It’s a fact that nobody – not even this rather assertive film producer, maker of the most incendiary remarks about the AFCON since, well, Jurgen Klopp – can deny.