LONDON (AP) — Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira won’t try to block his players from competing in the African Cup of Nations, arguing that the tournament deserves more respect.
It begins in early January in Cameroon despite the fast-spreading omicron variant adding to concerns that include European clubs threatening not to send players after raising doubts about coronavirus protocols put in place by the Confederation of African Football.
“I will never stop any players to go to play the African Cup of Nations,” Vieira said at a press conference ahead of Palace’s match at Tottenham on Sunday. “I believe that that competition has to be more respected. This competition is as important as the European Championship.”
The Dakar-born Vieira, who played internationally for France, is set to lose Cheikhou Kouyate (Senegal), Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast) and Jordan Ayew (Ghana).
“I respect and I understand the passion and the importance of those players to go and to represent their country,” Vieira said.
Liverpool would be missing league-leading scorer Mohamed Salah (Egypt) as well as Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Naby Keita (Guinea), among other teams set to lose players.
Vieira said more media coverage would help people “understand more how important it is for the African continent.”
“When you’re talking about Senegal, I don’t think (the Senegalese) will understand if Mane or Cheikhou Kouyate will not represent the nation,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest doubts now are when national teams will have their full 28-man squads.
The organization representing the world’s leading domestic leagues says teams shouldn’t have to release players until Jan. 3, a week later than stipulated by FIFA and only six days before the tournament begins. That would allow stars like Salah and Mane to squeeze in two more Premier League games.
“(The African Cup) will start one week earlier than normally, due to its extended format and CAF has encouraged FAs to call up more players than ever,” the World Leagues Forum wrote Thursday to the world and African governing bodies in a letter seen by The Associated Press. “These decisions, made unilaterally by FIFA and CAF, have a huge impact on domestic competitions’ integrity, placing many clubs and players in a difficult position.”
The world’s two biggest leagues in England and Spain — the Premier League and La Liga — have matches on Jan. 2 and continue throughout the African Cup.
The World Leagues Forum called the earlier requirement for players to go on international duty “unreasonable and disproportionate for many clubs and players who are still playing at that time,” and said that any sanction imposed by FIFA on clubs would be deemed “abusive, null and void.”
While there have been talks about whether the already delayed 2021 African Cup of Nations might be postponed for a second time because of the pandemic, or even moved to a country outside Africa, CAF insists that it will still open on Jan. 9 at the Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé. It ends Feb. 6.
Cameroon was due to host the 2019 edition but lost it because of problems with its preparations. It was given a second chance in 2021 but the event was pushed back a year because of the pandemic.