When the Africa Cup of Nations starts in January, the Bundesliga pacesetters will be without several key players. Their absence at a crucial time could change how clubs recruit African football players in the future.
Bayer Leverkusen striker Victor Boniface fondly remembers when Nigeria won their third and last Africa Cup of Nations title a decade ago. He is set to play his first tournament with Nigeria in January — even if it robs his German Bundesliga club of their main forward for a month of soccer games.
“It is the dream of every football player from Nigeria to represent their country and win a trophy for the country. So we’re looking forward to the next AFCON,” Boniface told DW after he scored his eighth Bundesliga goal in a 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund at the BayArena in Leverkusen.
The 22-year-old is one of five Leverkusen players, including Odilon Kossounou, Edmond Tapsoba, Amine Adli and Nathan Tella, who could head to the 2023 AFCON in the Ivory Coast in January.
The 2023 tournament was originally scheduled for June and July this year, but it was moved back because of fears the rainy season in the Ivory Coast could stop play.
The absence of Boniface, who was voted Rookie of the Month for the first three months of the Bundesliga season, will hit Leverkusen hard as Xabi Alonso’s side could win the Bundesliga title for the first time.
“We’re not worried”
But Burkina Faso defender Tapsoba thinks the club will manage without their African contingent.
“For me as a footballer from Africa, the African Cup is a special competition,” Tapsoba told DW.
“And even though we’re leaving in January, we trust our teammates. Everybody is working hard, and you can see that the coach is trying to mix the lineup in every game. Everybody is ready to take their chance, so we’re not so worried about it.”
Burkina Faso lost their only final against Nigeria, in 2013, by a narrow 1-0 scoreline. So, winning the AFCON is a big ambition for Tapsoba.
“For our generation, it is challenging because it is full of young talents. We are trying to do better than our [predecessors]. We are going to Ivory Coast to do better than the last time,” he said.
“It is not ideal”
Two trophies are proudly displayed in the foyer of the BayArena: a UEFA Europa League title won in 1988 under the tournament’s old name of the UEFA Cup, and a German Cup (DFB Pokal) won in 1993. Leverkusen have gone 30 years without a title.
The club’s infamous string of second-place finishes in the 2001/02 season — in the Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup — earned the club the nickname “Neverkusen”.
Club CEO Fernando Carro, desperate for a trophy, told German media it was “unacceptable” that the AFCON was taking place in January.
But sporting director Simon Rolfes hopes that they will be able to deal with the situation.
“The thing with the African Cup is for sure it is not ideal, but we would love to have the African Cup in [the European] summer, at the summer break between the seasons,” Rolfes told DW.
“I know that the players are proud to play for their country; I know that from my playing time, it was the same. And we are happy and proud that we have so many national team players representing their countries.
“We have to deal with this. We have a really good squad, and I think we can handle this situation, but it is not ideal. But in life, there are some situations where you have to deal with this, and we will do.”
Rethinking African player recruitment?
The AFCON could lead to a change in where top Bundesliga clubs look to recruit players in the future. Champions Bayern Munich have three African players, although only Morocco defender Noussair Mazraoui is likely to leave for the AFCON.
High-flying VFB Stuttgart will lose top strikers Serhou Guirassy to Guinea and Silas Katompa Mvumpa to the DR Congo for the tournament.
But Leverkusen will be the worst hit. Rolfes bemoaned the fact that moving the AFCON to European summer — as happened in 2019 in Egypt — is not being repeated.
“You cannot have 15 African players in your squad, and then in January, you do not have any players anymore,” he said.
Edited by: Mark Meadows