Salah’s AFCON 2023 quest reignites football’s club vs country debate

Will the mid-season exodus of Salah, Victor Osimhen and other top players hurt their respective clubs’ title chances?

Soccer Football - World Cup - CAF Qualifiers - Group A - Egypt v Djibouti - Cairo International Stadium, Cairo, Egypt - November 16, 2023 Egypt's Mohamed Salah celebrates with a match ball after the match after scoring four goals REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Mohamed Salah has lost two AFCON titles with Egypt [File: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

A few minutes after joining the elite 150-goal club for Liverpool and helping his team climb to the top of a closely contested Premier League table, Mohamed Salah laid bare his ambition to “win this competition”.

The player of the match in Monday’s 4-2 win over Fulham had already shifted his focus to winning a trophy that has eluded him after two finals – the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

Egypt’s captain Salah would soon depart the United Kingdom to link up with his teammates for the continental championship being held in the Ivory Coast from January 13 to February 11.

The tournament was originally scheduled for the summer of 2023, but was postponed due to the rainy season in the West African host nation.

Following his two goals against Newcastle at Anfield, which also sent him to the joint top of the scoring charts alongside Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, Salah was pressed about his priorities by former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports.

“It means a lot to play in the national team,” Salah replied. “It’s a great feeling every time you step on the field with the national team jersey.”

“It’s something I cannot take for granted. I am just happy to be there, happy to play in the tournament.

“I want to win this competition [AFCON]. I would love to win it,” he reaffirmed.

Salah has been at the losing end of two AFCON finals – in 2017 as a young striker and in 2021 as the captain who tearfully saw his side lose to Senegal in a penalty shootout.

Now a talismanic leader of the Pharaohs, Salah would be determined to ensure his team walks away as champions for a record-extending eighth time.

A pyramid-sized hole for Liverpool

Despite its popularity in the football-mad African continent and beyond, AFCON has been somewhat of a controversial competition in the past given its historical placing midway through the league seasons in Europe.

It has even led to clubs suggesting they would not sign African internationals given their absence from club duties as they participate in the event, which is staged every two years.

Salah is arguably the biggest departure from the European stage for this edition of Africa’s showpiece tournament.

The 31-year-old has helped Liverpool, which finished fifth last season and failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, to a three-point lead at the top of the Premier League as it enters its second half.

A shot at a second league title in 34 years is within touching distance for the Reds, but their record-breaking forward, who also leads the charts for assists in the Premier League in 2023, is going to leave a pyramid-sized hole behind him.

When AFCON’s move from the summer of 2023 to the beginning of 2024 was confirmed, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp termed it a “catastrophe”.

“If we have to make a decision about bringing in a player [to the club] – it’s massive because, before the season, you know you don’t have him for at least four weeks,” Klopp added, referring to players missing club matches in order to participate in AFCON.

With Klopp’s team leading the league by a slim margin of three points, Salah’s availability – or lack thereof – has made Liverpool fans uncomfortable.

As the Premier League top-four race heats up, Dan Plumley – a sport finance expert – believes it will be interesting to watch how Salah’s absence affects Liverpool’s title push.

“There may not be a big difference in prize money for each place in the Premier League, but winning the title itself is huge – much like winning AFCON would be for Salah,” Plumley told Al Jazeera.

“The UEFA Champions League is the biggest [financial] issue and assuming Liverpool drop off [in the Premier League] and go outside the top four spots, that’s worth around 50 million pounds ($63m).”

Club duty put on hold

Salah is slated to miss seven games for Liverpool should he lead his side to the final on February 11. This includes Chelsea’s visit to Anfield on January 31 and Liverpool’s trip to title rivals Arsenal four days later.

In England, Arsenal and Tottenham will also be hit hard by AFCON in terms of absentees.

Spurs and Liverpool will also have to do without South Korea’s Son Heung-min and Japan’s Wataru Endo respectively as the pair depart for the Asian Cup, which is running simultaneously to AFCON.

Manchester United are set to lose their first-choice goalkeeper Andre Onana.

The Cameroonian stopper retired from international football following his expulsion from the national team during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

After Onana was sent home following a fallout with manager Rigobert Song, it appeared his future with Cameroon was over. However, Onana reversed his decision last September, barely two months after Onana’s debut for United.

Would United have signed him had they known he may return for Cameroon?

Plumley, who teaches sport finance at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, agreed that player availability can affect signings.

“Scheduling is likely to influence player signing decision-making,” he said.

The Confederation of African Football proposed in 2017 for AFCON to be held during European summer months from 2019 onwards. While the 2019 edition in Egypt was held in June and July, the 2021 tournament in Cameroon was pushed to January and February 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to avoid adverse weather conditions.

Plumley believes scheduling poses a problem for the wider football calendar.

The revamped FIFA Club World Cup will likely move to the summer and there are also the Euros and Copa America, so it’s a crowded schedule,” he said.

“Ultimately, you have to protect AFCON, so clubs will have to put up with it wherever it falls, but it if stays in winter it will continue to cause issues between clubs and country.

“Clubs will be factoring things like this into the signings, especially when the [player signing] fees are so high.”

Which clubs will miss players to AFCON and the Asian Cup?

Joining the list of club absentees, the recently crowned men’s African footballer of the year Victor Osimhen will also turn up for Nigeria after taking his leave from Italy’s defending champions Napoli, whom he helped clinch their first Serie A title since 1990.

French champions Paris Saint-Germain will lose Achraf Hakimi to one of the pre-tournament favourites Morocco.

In the Saudi Pro League, Al Nassr will have to do without defending champions Senegal’s Sadio Mane, and Al-Ahli will lose Riyad Mahrez to Algeria.

Here are some of the big-name players replacing their club colours with that of their country during AFCON and the Asian Cup 2023:

Premier League

  • Arsenal: Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Japan)
  • Aston Villa: Bertrand Traore (Burkina Faso)
  • Chelsea: Nicolas Jackson (Senegal)
  • Fulham: Alex Iwobi (Nigeria)
  • Liverpool: Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Wataru Endo (Japan)
  • Manchester United: Andre Onana (Cameroon), Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco)
  • Tottenham Hotspur: Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal), Yves Bissouma (Mali), Son Heung-min (South Korea)
  • West Ham: Mohammed Kudus (Ghana), Said Benrahma (Algeria), Nayef Aguerd (Morocco) and Maxwel Cornet (Ivory Coast)

Ligue 1

  • Paris Saint-Germain: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Lee Kang-in (South Korea)
  • Lille: Nabil Bentaleb and Adam Ounas (both Algeria)
  • Nice: Hicham Boudaoui (Algeria)
  • Le Havre: Andre Ayew (Ghana)
  • Marseille: Iliman Ndiaye and Ismaila Sarr (both Senegal)
  • Monaco: Takumi Minamino (Japan)

Serie A

  • AC Milan: Ismael Bennacer (Algeria), Samuel Chukwueze (Nigeria)
  • Napoli: Victor Osimhen (Nigeria)
  • Roma: Houssem Aouar (Algeria)

Saudi Pro League

  • Al-Ahli: Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Edouard Mendy (Senegal), Franck Kessie (Ivory Coast)
  • Al Ahly: Ali Maaloul (Tunisia) 
  • Al Ittihad: Ahmed Hegazy (Egypt) 
  • Al Nassr: Seko Fofana (Ivory Coast)
  • Al-Hilal: Yassine Bounou (Morocco), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)


  • Bayer Leverkusen: Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso), Victor Boniface (Nigeria)
  • Stuttgart: Silas (DR Congo)
  • Borussia Dortmund: Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)
  • Bayern Munich: Noussair Mazraoui (Morocco), Kim Min-jae (South Korea)
Source: Al Jazeera