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Afcon 2023: Does the club versus country dilemma still exist for players and fans?

As the world’s top football clubs prepare to lose key players during the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), is the perennial club versus country issue still relevant?

Leading players including Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen and Achraf Hakimi will be in Ivory Coast for the continent’s showpiece event, which kicks off on 13 January and ends on 11 February – the tournament being officially branded as ‘2023’ even though the finals are taking place in 2024.

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Although it will coincide with winter breaks across some European leagues, clubs will face a number of weeks without first-team regulars.

Do players face a dilemma?

Brentford midfielder Frank Onyeka is preparing for his second Afcon with Nigeria, having featured in Cameroon in early 2022.

“I’ll always want to represent my country on the big stage. It’s an honour to wear the green and white shirt, so it’s something that I have to do,”

“I was a boy playing in the streets of Nigeria and now I’m representing the Super Eagles at Afcon.

“It is a dream come true, because after watching Afcon legends in past years, now you’re going to be part of the team. I’m looking forward to it so much.”

Onyeka has been a regular in Brentford’s starting XI this season along with fellow Africans Bryan Mbeumo (Cameroon) and Yoane Wissa (DR Congo).

Forward Mbeumo has been ruled out of AFCON with injury and  all three players will be a huge miss to the Premier League club next month.

Onyeka says the trio have discussed the situation.

“It’s not going to be easy. But I know the team – they are strong,” the 25-year-old added.

“When someone leaves, another person is there to take their place.”

When should Afcon be held?

In 2017 the Confederation of African Football (Caf) decided to move the finals from its traditional January -February slot to June-July with the 2019 edition in Egypt the first to be held in the European summer.

Yet the 2021 finals were pushed back to January and February 2022, in part to avoid adverse weather conditions in host nation Cameroon and because of disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jay-Jay Okocha won the Nations Cup with Nigeria in 1994 and says the timing of Afcon can have a big impact on players amid congested calendars.

“They’ve made it so difficult for African players by playing in January or starting the season and winter break very, very early,” Okocha told the BBC World Service.

“If they can move the World Cup to December because of the heat to suit the nations that are participating, why can’t they do something about the Nations Cup, and work together so that it will not affect anybody?

“I know a lot of coaches that refuse to sign African players because of the January (Afcon) window, but they will sign Brazilians who go to play in the Copa America in the summer. It’s not fair.”

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