Cameroon has had to dig deep into their bags of reserves to qualify for the semi-finals of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The Indomitable Lions have had to fight it out without eight players who declined selection choosing to stay with their clubs in Europe. Should the four-time African champions go all the way in Gabon and clinch a fifth title, will it bring shame to those who refused to answer the nation’s call? Is there something we’ve learnt from the Gabon 2017 Afcon tournament in as far as players’ patriotism is concerned?

The Senegal case

Star-studded Senegal, probably every neutral and bookmakers’ firm favourites to win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) title, crashed out of the tournament, ironically at the hands of a Cameroonian side, which had eight European based stars who turned down the privilege to represent their country at Africa’s biggest football showcase.

To many armchair critics, it is no sheer coincidence that the upset happened.  A twist to the story, Senegal’s best player, Sadio Mane, was the fall guy of his country’s Afcon heartbreak after he missed the decisive penalty shootout spot-kick against Cameroon in the quarter-finals.

Liverpool's Senegalese midfielder Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the pre-season International Champions Cup football match between Spanish champions, Barcelona and Liverpool at Wembley stadium in London on August 6, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Glyn Kirk
Liverpool’s Senegalese midfielder Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the pre-season International Champions Cup football match between Spanish champions, Barcelona and Liverpool at Wembley stadium in London on August 6, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Glyn Kirk

As soon as Senegal were eliminated from the tournament Mane’s club, English Premiership giants Liverpool, immediately dispatched a private jet to fetch Mane so he could resume his struggling club’s commitments in England. Mane went on to feature for the Reds, coming on as a second half substitute and helping his team earn a valuable point against London giants Chelsea.

Let’s be fair; it is not in any way Liverpool’s fault that Senegal are out of Afcon earlier than expected. Like all football clubs, Liverpool is a business entity entitled to demand the best returns on their investments. They pay millions of dollars to buy players in pursuit of results.

In the case of Mane, Liverpool paid Southampton for his signature, forking out US$45.5 million, a record transfer fee for an African footballer.

Senegal’s loss, Liverpool’s delight

In Mane’s absence, Liverpool has gone on a terrible run of form, including being eliminated by Championship side Wolvermpton Wanderers from the FA Cup at the weekend.

No one can begrudge Liverpool their delight at having their record signing back. But what of Mane? What will he be feeling right now? Disappointed to see his country being knocked out (more so that it was his miss that caused it), but then even more happy to be going back to Liverpool, who pay him the big dollar week in week out?

Hard patriotism

I’m not here to measure patriotism, or lack thereof, there are a lot of people across Africa right now who aren’t in the mood of censuring their opinion around the issue of patriotism.

The Ivory Coast team celebrates its victorious AFCON 2015 . Photo: Getty
The Ivory Coast team celebrates its victorious AFCON 2015 . Photo: Getty

It’s a contentious issue, which is likely to stay with us for the foreseeable future.

African players find themselves in a predicament when it comes to representing their countries, particularly at a tournament like the Afcon, which clashes with domestic seasons back in Europe.

This problem is particularly serious for a player like Mane, whose place in the Liverpool team is certain because he is a key and consistent player.

Many players that are caught in this club-versus-country dilemma are the fringe players, desperate to cement their places at their clubs. For some of the players, being away from their respective clubs for three to four weeks on international duty is seen a diminishing their chances.

There is also the likelihood of picking up career- threatening injuries playing at a not-so-lucrative tournament. In this situation, the fundamental incentive is the pride of representing one’s nation, but the question many players grapple with is, at what cost?

What does the future holds?

Such was the case when eight of Cameroon’s European based players refused to represent their nation in Gabon.

The uncomfortable and stark reality in African football is patriotism doesn’t pay the bills. But then again, money can’t buy national pride. With Cameroon doing remarkably well at the Afcon tourney, it could start to make other African national teams get the idea that maybe they really don’t need those who feel they’d rather be somewhere else.