Pride, patriotism win for African soccer fans and players in club vs. country debate


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — For African soccer fans and players, there’s no doubt which takes priority in the club vs. country debate.

There’s little to no sympathy for European clubs missing star players in the middle of the season because of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

Victor Osimhen cannot play for Napoli when he’s trying to steer Nigeria to its first title since 2013; Mohamed Salah was injured in his second game for Egypt in a blow for Liverpool; and Bayer Leverkusen’s Bundesliga challenge has been complicated by the absence of four players. Leverkusen forward Victor Boniface is out for months to recover from a thigh injury sustained in Nigeria’s tournament preparations.

Stuttgart is without Serhou Guirassy, who scored 17 goals in 14 Bundesliga games before joining his Guinea teammates. Now he’s trying to guide the Elephants past the quarterfinals.

“You don’t have much better than playing for your country,” Guirassy told The Associated Press after Guinea’s late win over Equatorial Guinea on Sunday.

For African fans, it’s a rare chance to see their stars at home, demonstrating the pride and commitment they feel representing their countries, the biggest calling in a soccer player’s career.

“It’s difficult for the poor Europeans. But we are happy,” Ivory Coast fan Ibrahim Coulibaly told the AP. “We’re happy because the players have come to raise the level of the tournament. Everyone has their own interests. We bring the children, enjoy life a little, it’s always a joy for us.”

Armand Kouassi, an Ivorian who was supporting Cameroon against Nigeria, also considered country more important than club.

“When you have the honor of being called up for selection, you don’t think of money,” Kouassi said. “For me, it’s not a lack of respect (for the clubs), it’s a patriotic act.”

Marina Bouho, an Abidjan native who was supporting Cape Verde against Mauritania on Monday, said African players were obligated to return to help their countries.

“It’s a huge competition for Africa and everyone has to come and play,” Bouho told the AP. “It hurts a lot if they’re not allowed. It’s bad if obstacles are put in the players’ way.”

FIFA regional director for Africa, Gelson Fernandes, said the clubs should make allowances for African players to represent their countries at the Africa Cup, and they can also benefit when players return after a good tournament.

“They come back with a lot of energy to the club, positive energy. And it represents a lot for the continent,” Fernandes told the AP. “I understand that it’s difficult to lose a player, but I also understand that the player is as proud as a bride to represent his country.”

Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly previously said he could not understand why some give more respect to the clubs than their countries.

“My choice is to play for my country. If (the club) are not happy, I will find another club,” Koulibaly told the AP.

Geuky Coulibaly (no relation to Ibrahim), who was supporting Ivory Coast, said African pride was of greater importance than clubs’ and players’ financial concerns.

“We must not abandon our origins, even if that means financial sacrifices. We must always keep our love for our country and respond when the country calls,” Geuky Coulibaly said. “It shows that there is a little change in the consciousness of Africans, and that makes me happy.”

Ivorian worker Issouf Traoré suggested it was a small sacrifice for clubs to release players.

“The country needs them,” Traoré told the AP. “Afterward, by the grace of God, if God gives us the cup and we win in the end, everyone will return to their clubs with joy.”


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