Dealing with the tough demands of earning one’s crust, as a professional in top flight European club football, whilst serving one’s country – regarded as a sacred duty, by compatriots, during World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers – has always been a high-wire balancing act for players.
Unlike their European counterparts, who can normally reach any part of their continent within a few hours and return to their clubs rather quickly, after international assignments, African players often have to make long and grueling journeys for qualifying matches.
Having to cope with sudden swings in climatic conditions, from temperate Europe to tropical Africa, besides the rather challenging pitches they often have to play on, in some venues, where the facilities are less than first-class, hardly makes some international fixtures experiences that they would relish.
And, it goes without saying, that they are expected to be as fit as fiddles for their subsequent club matches, after yet another transatlantic flight.
Any surprise then, that several players resort to the option of having a series of international ‘retirements’, throughout their careers, in order to reduce the demands on their talent – which usually happen at the end of a World Cup – only to suddenly declare their availability for selection, on the verge of another one, when the country has virtually done the job of qualifying, without them?
It is what many in Ghana would coin the ‘Boateng Syndrome’.
When Kevin-Prince Boateng retired from international football in November 2011, claiming his then 24-year old body could not cope with the ‘excessive’ demands of playing for AC Milan and his home country of Ghana, opting to concentrate on his Italian club career, he provoked a storm of anger amongst Ghanaians.
Many felt betrayed, by the attacking midfielder’s decision to quit, having made a high-profile move from Portsmouth, the former English Premiership side, to Milan, which was certainly oiled by featuring for the Black Stars at the 2010 World Cup.
With a prevailing opinion that Boateng was only too happy to abandon Ghana when his talent was most needed, having made himself unavailable to play at the 2012 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, many felt the door should be closed, permanently, on his international comeback.
So, it’s no surprise that Boateng’s willingness to end his international retirement and become available for selection, with a 2014 World Cup qualification ticket in sight for Ghana, has not been warmly welcomed by all, especially as his less than sterling form in last season’s Serie A could see him being offloaded to an English Premiership or high-spending French side.
South Africa, now out of race for qualifying for the 2014 World Cup – unless a protest over the eligibility of an Ethiopian player hands them an unexpected lifeline – know, acutely, the pain of seeing a top player quit on the country when most needed.
Stephen Pienaar, their best player, succumbed to the country versus club pull last year, opting for international retirement and an easier life playing Premiership football.
“African fans sometimes don’t understand what European-based players have to go through, when they have to play for the countries,” Sunday Oliseh, the former Ajax, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund player said to me, in a conversation we had on the subject, many years ago.
“First of all, the clubs, even though they have no choice to let us go to play for our countries, because of the FIFA rules, are not happy that we travel for them. That puts players under a lot of pressure, because no one wants to have difficulties with an employer.
“Secondly, although we grew up in the tropical African weather, having to make the sudden adjustment back to it, for qualifiers, after years of living in different climatic conditions in Europe, can be very difficult.
“And after being used to playing on very good pitches in Europe, there is the huge challenge of readjusting to pitches in some of the venues, where African qualifiers are played.
“Having to deal with all these competing interests and issues can be very difficult.
“When I was captain of Nigeria and had to play at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations, I know what I went through, with Juventus, as a result of my insistence that I had to serve my country. It created a lot of difficulties for me, when I returned to the club. These are the realities that ordinary fans do not understand.”
And with several African national teams having an even larger infusion of players who were born and largely bred in Europe, who have little tolerance for dealing with the logistical challenges of playing international football in the continent, it is unlikely that the consequences, of trying to serve and equally please two masters, will abate.
“The reality we have to face is that a lot of players want to be able to control the number of qualifying matches that they play in and we may have no choice than to accommodate them,” said an prominent FA chairman, in an off-the-record conversation with me.
“If they are amongst the best players that we have for our national team, is it in our best interest not to pick them for a big tournament, as we clearly need their talent and experience, just because they decided to stay away from playing in some qualifying matches?”
“And how do we bring them back in without upsetting team spirit, as their return would mean that those who played in his absence and stayed faithful to the national cause – but are as not as good – would have to be dropped?”
These questions certainly provide a lot of food for thought.
As long as Africa’s various national leagues continue to lack the capacity, that European football has, to develop raw talent into finished, world-class products, as well as provide players with a good living in their home countries, the interests of Africa’s national teams will always be at the mercy of European club demands.
He that pays the piper, as the old adage goes, dictates the tune.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.