Africa Cup of Nations organisers have insisted next month’s delayed tournament will take place as scheduled in Cameroon despite European clubs threatening not to release their players because of concerns over rising cases of the Omicron Covid‑19 variant.
The European Club Association sent a letter to Mattias Grafström, the Fifa deputy secretary-general, last week detailing “three fundamental concerns for clubs when it comes to the release of players to national teams”. Those are ensuring that “every player’s wellbeing is protected”, “that clubs are not forced to be without players for club competition matches”, and that all should be allowed to return to their clubs after the tournament “in a timely fashion, as per the applicable rules”.
“At present, these three principles are at risk of not being respected in connection with the upcoming January releases,” the letter said.
The tournament was scheduled to take place last year before being delayed by the pandemic, and reports circulated on Wednesday that it could be postponed again. The Confederation of African Football (Caf) refused to comment on the ECA letter but its head of media relations, Lux September, told the Guardian: “Afcon will be staged in Cameroon on 9 January 2022. This is alpha. And omega.”
Up to 40 players from the Premier League could be called up for the tournament. Liverpool have held talks over delaying the departures of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, with Jürgen Klopp saying he was “optimistic” both will be available for the trips to Leicester and Chelsea over the festive period.
With rules over how long players will have to quarantine for after their return undefined, European clubs remain uncertain over the full impact of the tournament on their squads. The ECA had a meeting with Fifa a fortnight ago to discuss player safety.
Klopp is confident Liverpool can cope without Salah and Mané should the tournament go ahead. The club remain in discussions with the football associations of Egypt, Senegal and Naby Keïta’s Guinea over delaying the trio’s departure. But Klopp, who has Roberto Firmino back from a hamstring injury for the Premier League game against Newcastle on Thursday night, believes he has the resources to handle any disruption.
The Liverpool manager said: “We knew three would qualify and be there, and we know that at least two of them will go pretty far in the tournament. Can you be prepared for something like that, properly, perfectly? Like a one-for-one replacement for Sadio, a [like-for-like] replacement for Mo, a replacement for Naby? That’s tricky in each situation, but I am happy with the squad and we have options … We are quite confident we will find solutions.”
Klopp rejected reports that Joël Matip is considering a return to international duty with Cameroon. “I asked him and he said no,” he said.