Imagine most of baseball's Latin American sluggers returning home en masse to miss a full month of games midway through a regular season, and you'll get some idea of what European pro soccer is currently experiencing. Depleted squads; the general level of play noticeably weakened; and standings shaken up as teams surge or falter as a result of the exodus of so many star performers. The cause of the exodus? The African Cup of Nations, a biennial tournament that pitches the continent's 16 top national teams against one another in a mini-World Cup whose quality now rivals the regional competitions of South America and Europe.
European coaches may lament the rules set by the game's governing body that forces them to do without star players whose contracts cost tens of millions of dollars, but there's consolation for the fans: They, at least, can switch over to TV coverage of a tournament that showcases some of their favorite stars playing some of the most thrilling soccer on the planet not least because of the sheer joy and exuberance exhibited by the players freed from the more restrictive patterns of their European pro teams.
The tournament (often known by its French acronym, CAN) kicked off on Jan. 20 in host nation Ghana, and winds up with a Feb. 10 final that will crown the heir to Egypt as Africa's soccer champion. And the power, skill, speed and pure passion that have long been hallmarks of the African game have again been gloriously evident this year. More importantly, this year's tournament also confirms soccer-mad Africa's status as one of the major sources of top-flight talent for the European teams that dominate the global game today. Gone are the days when the African Cup boasted a couple of giants such as George Weah or Roger Milla, surrounded by a gaggle of talented but raw prospects. This year, 143 of the 368 players at CAN are drawn from elite European clubs, including such contemporary legends as Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) and Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast); Chelsea's Didier Drogba, Solomon Kalou (both Ivory Coast) and Michael Essien (Ghana), and Real Madrid's Mamadou Diarra (Mali).
But beyond the marquee names are literally dozens of the starting players of the leading clubs of England, France, Germany and Spain. The impact of these players earning their weekly wage among the global soccer elite of Europe's top leagues has raised the quality of intra-African competition to the point that it has now become a major business proposition. According to CAN sponsor Canon, the potential accumulated global TV audience for the tournament is close to 4 billion; international sports channel Eurosport which is broadcasting all 32 CAN matches live to the 59 countries it serves expects over 70 million unique viewers in a potential total audience of 240 million. Eurosport's coverage, of course, gives European franchises a second reason for cursing CAN: Not only has it robbed them of some of their top players for a month, the African tournament is also stealing TV viewers away from European club fixtures.
"In addition to featuring marvelous players who have become mainstays of pro teams here, Europeans also turn to the CAN for the wide-open insouciance of play," explains Christophe Jammot, host and programming director of Eurosport France's CAN coverage. Unlike the strategy-obsessed, technique-minded style imposed by their European pro clubs, Jammot says players in the CAN won't hesitate to fire a cannonball shot from 40 yards out, attempt to slalom solo through an entire defense, or try audacious flicks and tricks rarely seen beyond the practice field in Europe. "They play to play, and do so now often with a skill level second to none. How could a soccer fan European or otherwise resist that?"
Well, the pro clubs who employ those African players in Europe certainly could do without it. Most complain bitterly about CAN's mid-season schedule, which they say seriously disrupts their planning. (European and Latin American continental tournaments are held during the European off-season in the Northern Hemisphere's summer.) Not only are their African stars absent for nearly a month, they also frequently return injured or exhausted either from play, or from the CAN's unrivaled nocturnal festivities.
"Ironically, the success of African players in becoming so vital to Europe's pro teams will probably force the CAN to be scaled back to every four years," Jammot predicts although he suggests that a tournament for Africa-based players could still be held every two years.
Still, as much as they complain about CAN, Europe's top clubs have sent dozens of scouts to sit in the bleachers in Ghana, in search of the the next Eto'o or Drogba.