Why Napoli owner’s comments about not signing African players are problematic

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Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis went on an Italian talk show on Tuesday and expressed an opinion more divided among European football executives than many care to admit.

“Don’t talk to me about Africans anymore,” the 73-year-old film producer said in multiple translations. He then hinted that Napoli would not sign any more African players unless they agreed not to play in the Africa Cup of Nations.

AFCON, Africa’s biannual continental championship, has long been a touchy subject for European clubs. With one recent exception, it has always been played during the Northern Hemisphere winters while the European seasons are in full swing. And so, every two years, African stars leave their clubs – “the idiots who pay their salaries,” as De Laurentiis argued – and join their national teams for a month.

This was the reason for the attitude of de Laurentiis, which he rightly takes. African players have been slightly devalued for a long time because they miss about 10-15% of some seasons. If Napoli and their president value that 10-15% more than most other clubs and adjust accordingly the prices they are willing to pay for African players, simple market forces would dissuade them from those players anyway.

which is ok It’s the business of football. “If he thinks the team can play without African players, it’s up to him,” Kalidou Koulibaly, a Senegalese defender who spent eight years at Napoli, said on Wednesday.

What is not okay, and certainly not necessary, is to casually reveal this attitude without regard to the complexity of the issue.

“For me, the most important thing is to respect everyone,” Koulibaly continued.

“You can’t talk about an African national team like that,” he explained. “You have to have respect like you do for the other national teams.”

Napoli club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis’ stance on signing African players makes sound business sense. What is indefensible is to casually reveal this stance without regard to the complexity of the issue. (Photo by Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

FIFA, the global governing body of football, has long codified this respect. Professional clubs have to release their players for top international tournaments. And in a non-globalized world, the rule would not be an issue. Italy’s Serie A would end before Euro and Uruguay’s Primera Division would split for Copa America and South Africa’s PSL would break for AFCON and so on and all would be fine. If Napoli’s squad were largely made up of Italians, as was the case decades ago, de Laurentiis would have no problem.

But of course, European football consolidated its wealth and started attracting stars from all over the world. Four leagues and a dozen clubs in particular, driven by ruthless commercialism, have priced out every other continent and started offering salaries that the Global South could not and cannot match.

And then, emboldened by their wealth and bolstered by Eurocentric media, they began pressuring the rest of the football world to heed their demands.

AFCON has been a winter-spring tournament since its inception in the 1950s. That it now poses a conflict for elite players is a problem that has made Europe itself neocolonial. And yet, rather than putting AFCON alongside the euro – after all, they are equivalents – Europe has treated AFCON primarily as a nuisance. Clubs were delighted when organizers moved the 2019 edition to the summer. They whined and complained when it returned to winter in 2022 amid the pandemic.

“Is there ever a tournament more respected than the Africa Cup of Nations?” wondered former England striker Ian Wright.

“The reporting,” Wright said, “is completely racially tinged.”

The tournament, said Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira, a Senegal-born Frenchman, “needs to be more respected – because this competition is just as important as the European Championships.”

But it’s not treated that way in England. It’s not hard to see the double standards across Europe, especially when the likes of De Laurentiis make it clear. They know only positions of power and expect the world to bend to their will. In an alternate reality, if a Canadian club started signing top Italian players and their season wasn’t suspended for the EURO, how would an Italian feel if that Canadian club pressured players to skip the EURO?

But because it’s Africa, the most oppressed and neglected continent in the world, and because Europeans have never had to deal with anything like it and because they only consider their own perspectives, they have the gall to suggest that a player should prioritize a few club games about the largest or second largest international tournament of his life.

They never considered that maybe a much more sensible solution would be for the European leagues to introduce extended winter breaks that would cover all or part of AFCON.

At least they could empathize with their players and enthusiastically accept their participation in AFCON.

“When I was playing [at Napoli]I also played for Senegal and won AFCON,” said Koulibaly, who recently joined Chelsea. “It’s true that it was a difficult moment for them when we went to AFCON, but today I’m really happy [to have won it].”

Asked if he was ever pushed to skip AFCON at Napoli, Koulibaly said: “No, never. Nobody ever told me not to go to AFCON. Maybe they tried to ask my agent sometimes, but with me as Senegal captain, even as Senegal player, when AFCON comes, I want to be the first there.

“No one can stop me from going to my national team. I have a lot of love for my national team, for my country, for the people I play for.”





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