THE Premier League's dressing rooms became quieter places this week after almost 40 players left their clubs for Ghana and the African Cup of Nations, a tournament that ignites national pride but also sparks despair in managers who find themselves short of players. David Moyes and Sam Allardyce have led the now common calls for the competition, which kicks off in January to be moved to the summer. Their protests are not surprising: between them, Everton and Newcastle will lose seven players this month.
The Nigerian Football Association gave Yakubu Ayegbeni permission to play in Everton's Carling Cup semi-final tie at Chelsea but there was no such dispensation for Steven Pienaar who was told by South Africa to ignore his club manager's demands and join up with the squad immediately. Moyes's desire to keep players for as long as possible is borne out of past experiences; he knows the effect a new year exodus can have.
In January 2004, he lost Joseph Yobo to the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. The Nigerian was a regular in Everton's defence and without him the side lost four league games, including a 4-3 reverse to Manchester United and a 3-0 loss to Birmingham. Everton had only conceded three or more goals in three of their 29 previous matches that season, without Yobo, and they did it twice in five days.
Yobo's return stabilised a side that was close to being relegated, they lost just once in their next nine games, kept three clean sheets and managed to stay in the division by just six points. Had the African Cup of Nations been longer, or Nigeria progressed further than the semi-finals, Everton could now be in the Championship.
Allardyce's despair is also based on past experiences. As the manager of Bolton, he lost four players to the 2006 tournament, held in Egypt, including El Hadji Diouf. The Senegal forward's departure coincided with the club's Uefa Cup tie at home to Marseille. They drew 0-0 before losing the second leg 2-1, a result that ended their first European campaign. Diouf also aggravated a hernia in Egypt, which meant he could not play again until late April. Bolton failed to qualify for Europe that season by seven points.
Diouf could have been an important source of goals then and could be even more so now should the club, as expected, sell Nicolas Anelka to Chelsea. But Diouf will be on international duty again and Senegal's gain could prove to be Bolton's ruin. They are only three points off the relegation zone and the loss of two regular strikers this month could see them slide into the bottom three.
"The African Cup of Nations is never going to move. It makes life difficult for Premier League clubs because more teams are taking more players from Africa," Allardyce said last week. "I don't think FIFA will contemplate shifting the tournament because it is such a big thing for the African boys and it's when they want it."
The African Cup of Nations, being held for the 26th time this year, is held in January through necessity. Most grounds in the continent do not have floodlights meaning matches have to be played during the day, impossible during the searing heat of June and July across much of the continent.
There is an obvious retort to managers who complain about scheduling: stop buying African players. According to a Uefa survey, 204 African players were playing in Europe in 2006, 24 in England. That figure surged to 40 last year and the success of the likes of Didier Drogba at Chelsea and Kolo Touré at Arsenal will only see more arrive. As Joe Jordan, Ports- mouth's assistant manager, said as his club lost four players to this year's Cup of Nations, "We're signing players from Africa because of their ability and that outweighs the handicap of losing them for a few weeks."
The African Cup of Nations' effect on the Premier League title race has been negligible and this is perhaps why Arsène Wenger remains calm despite Arsenal regularly seeing a January exodus.
The Gunners lost two players, Nwankwo Kanu and Lauren, in 2002 yet still won the championship, beating Liverpool, who lost no one, into second place. Arsenal's invincibles then stormed to the title in 2004 despite losing Kanu again. Touré and Emmanuel Eboué missed matches at the start of 2006 but so did Drogba and Chelsea still won their second consecutive title.
"I consider the players who go away to be injured," Wenger said. "The day they return, they are no longer injured and I put them back in my team."
The price of going
Rigobert Song's departure to the African Cup of Nations in 2000, which was co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria, was the start of the end of his Liverpool career. The Cameroon captain competed with Sami Hyypia for a place in the centre of defence before the tournament but played only four more times in the league that season after he returned. He lost his place to Stéphane Henchoz, who went on to form a formidable partnership with Hyypia over the next few seasons.
Frédéric Kanouté's participation in the 2004 African Cup of Nations gave Jermain Defoe the chance to establish himself in the Tottenham side. Defoe scored four goals in three games while Kanouté was away and Kanouté lost his place as a regular and joined Sevilla in May 2005, still angry that Spurs had tried to stop him competing in the tournament. The former France Under-21 international had registered with Mali just beforehand, which went down badly with club officials.
THE MEN IN GHANA
Arsenal: Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast), Alexandre Song (Cameroon)
Birmingham:: Richard Kingson (Ghana), Mehdi Nafti and Radhi Jaidi (Tunisia)
Blackburn: Aaron Mokoena (South Africa)
Bolton: El Hadji Diouf (Senegal), Abdoulaye Méïté (Ivory Coast)
Chelsea: Mikel John Obi (Nigeria), Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana)
Everton: Joseph Yobo and Yakubu Ayegbeni (Nigeria), Steven Pienaar (South Africa)
Liverpool: Nabil El Zhar (Morocco), Mohamed Sissoko (Mali)
Middlesbrough: Mohamed Shawky (Egypt)
Newcastle: Obafemi Martins (Nigeria), Geremi (Cameroon), Abdoulaye Faye and Habib Beye (Senegal)
Portsmouth: Pape Bouba Diop (Senegal), Nwankwo Kanu and John Utaka (Nigeria), Sulley Muntari (Ghana)
Reading: André Bikey (Cameroon), Emerse Faé (Ivory Coast), Ibrahima Sonko (Senegal)
Sunderland: Dickson Etuhu (Nigeria)
Tottenham: Didier Zokora (Ivory Coast)
West Ham: John Pantsil (Ghana), Henri Camara (Senegal)
Wigan: Salomon Olembe (Cameroon), Julius Aghahowa (Nigeria)