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AFCON 2017: The European Influence on Africa’s Premier Tournament

Back in the summer of 2009, a major restriction on the switching of international allegiances was lifted, which has paved the way for more professional players to enjoy a career in senior international football.

The decision was made at the FIFA congress, when a motion raised by the Algerian Football Association was passed which abolished the need for a player to declare allegiance to a country by the age of 21, if they had already appeared for another country at youth level.

This has been a major benefit to several nations, particularly in Africa, who now have the opportunity to select from a larger pool of players, as long as they have not previously played a competitive ‘A’ senior international.

However, it has also had ramifications for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, who now face losing a larger number players for up to four weeks every two years when the African Nations Cup takes place.

In January this year, the French Football Federation published an interesting study looking at the number of players playing in the 2017 competition, who had been previously trained by French clubs. Astoundingly, they concluded that 104 of the 368 players taking part had been trained in France and of the 16 nations competing, only Egypt and Uganda didn’t include a player who had been previously involved in French football.

Having come across these figures, we thought it would be interesting to take a more extensive look into the demographics of the squads which took part in the competition, by interrogating the extensive biographical player information available in the Scout7 global database being used by over 150 professional clubs around the world.

In particular, we wanted to see how much of an influence European nations have had on the development of each player, as well as trying to establish the volume of players based in Europe who leave their clubs mid-season to participate in the competition.

Here is a summary of our key findings:

Part 1 – Players with a European Background

No matter whether you are looking in Europe, Asia, the Americas, or Africa, nearly every national team squad will feature at least one player who was born overseas but has chosen to play for that nation, either as a result of their family heritage or through residency. This is not a new phenomenon (remember Alfredo Di Stéfano?), nor is it just restricted to football either, as rugby, athletics and cricket followers would attest.

At the 2017 AFCON competition, 83 of the players who took part were born outside of Africa. 82 of those were born in Europe, with 70 born in France, which means that nearly 1 in 5 of all players that took part had a French background.

In total, there were 92 players at the competition who didn’t represent the country of their birth, as a further nine players who were born in Africa didn’t play for the nation where they were born.

Two of the nations’ named squads where fewer than 50% of their players were born in their country: Morocco and Algeria. According to our records, only three nations entered squads where all the players had been born in that country, including eventual finalists Egypt.

Since 2004, players who have represented one country at youth international level have been able to switch allegiance when it comes to who they represent at senior level and as we have already highlighted, there is now no age restriction for switching countries as long as a player has not played in a competitive senior international.

Given that Scout7 has collected youth international appearance information since 2001, we have been able to review the international history of all the players that took part in AFCON, to see how many players have previously played international football for another nation.

In total we have found that 60 of the players who took part had represented another nation, of which 39 had played for France between U16 and U21 level.

When you look at the breakdown of which nations these players represented at AFCON, it is interesting to see there isn’t a correlation with the number of players named by nations who were born outside of their own country.

For example, whilst 11 of Morroco’s 18 overseas born players were born in France, only one of those players had previously played youth international football for Les Bleus, which suggests the vast majority of the players always intended to play for the country where they had strong family ties.

The country with the most players in their squad who had switched allegiances was DR Congo, who had 10 players, who between them, had previously represented four different European nations. Three of those players had originally been born in DR Congo, so had made decisions later on in their career to represent the country of their birth at senior international level.

Of the nine players who had previously played for Portugal, eight were named in Guinea-Bissau’s squad, which meant that over a third of their squad had previously played for Portugal from U20-U23 level.


Part 2 – AFCON players playing their domestic football in Europe

For the 16 nations combined, less than a third of the players that participated in the 2017 AFCON currently play their domestic club football in Africa, whilst nearly two-thirds of players (63.6%) are based at European clubs.

In addition, whilst the figures are relatively modest in comparison, there were more players based in Asia (20) and the Americas (4) than recorded at any of the previous five AFCON competitions dating back to 2008.

Following a decline in the number of players based in Europe at the 2012 and 2013 AFCON tournaments, the last two editions in 2015 and 2017 have seen a sharp rise. In fact they both exceeded the very high numbers previously seen in 2010 and 2008.

In contrast, the 2017 edition has seen a massive drop in the number of players playing domestic football in Africa. In 2012 and 2013, there was a spike in the number of players from African clubs, which nearly matched the number of European-based players, but the last two editions has seen a major drop in numbers, culminating in this year, which saw the lowest number of African-based players in the competition since the start of our research in 2008.

When we break down the domestic location of players based on country, instead of continent, we can see that the vast majority of players are based in France, where clubs lose nearly 20 players more than the next country, England.

There is also a large number of players based in the Iberian region of Europe and in Turkey, whilst Tunisia and 2017 finalists Egypt are both strongly represented as a result of a large number of domestic players named in each nation’s tournament squads.

Interestingly, the competition also featured thirteen players based in South Africa, a number which would have been substantially higher if Bafana Bafana had qualified for the competition themselves.

Despite the changes seen in the last decade in the demographics of where AFCON players play their club football, clubs in France and England continue to lose more players to the competition compared to clubs in other countries.

In this graphic we have looked at the last six editions to see how many players based in each country took part. As you will see, with the exception of 2015 the number of players coming from French clubs has remained relatively stable, with the numbers this year actually being the lowest across the last six events.

In contrast, the 2017 edition hit English clubs particularly hard, as 36 is the highest number of players called-up since 2008. Following 2008, there was a steady decline in the number of players taking part in the competition from England, however since 2013 the numbers have seen a steady increase event-after-event.

Finally, when we look at the individual clubs who provided the most players for the 2017 competition, it will probably come as no surprise that given both Egypt and Tunisia selected squads made up of mainly domestic players, four of the top seven clubs came from these countries.

However given that all African Federations schedule their domestic leagues so that they don’t clash with AFCON, none of these players missed any domestic action.

Compare that to two French clubs, Lille and Angers, who were missing four and five players respectively when Ligue 1 resumed in mid-January.

Club

Number of Players

Al Ahly (Egypt)

7

TP Mazembe (DR Congo)

6

Zamalek (Egypt)

5

Lille (France)

5

Étoile du Sahel (Tunisia)

5

Espérance (Tunisia)

5

Angers (France)

4

Will European Clubs Continue to Provide High Volumes of Players in the Future?

There could be a number of factors responsible for the dwindling number of African-based players playing in the AFCON competition.

Given the recent increase in the volume of foreign players in the Spanish and Italian leagues, which we reviewed in a previous blog last year, it may be a simple case that a larger volume of senior international African players are now performing at a level where they are being targeted for recruitment by clubs in Europe’s elite leagues.

Alternatively, it could be a legacy of the changes in eligibility rules which we highlighted at the start of the blog, which could mean that more players growing up in Europe of African heritage now have the opportunity to play international football and are being proactively scouted by African Federations looking to strengthen their squads.

Given that the next two editions, in 2019 and 2021, are being played in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire respectively, it is very unlikely that the numbers will be boosted by local players appearing for a smaller ‘host’ country, who otherwise may have struggled to qualify for the finals. It could mean that we see an even smaller number of local players, continuing the trend of the last two editions.

It also means that it is inevitable European clubs will continue to lose several key players in January every other year for a while to come. It will be interesting to see if the leagues and their representative bodies start to lobby again for the tournament to revert to four-year cycles, rather than two.

Only time will tell.

by Andy Cooper PR & Project Manager

Published 08 February 2017

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