Senegalese coach Aliou Cisse has said international football – and the Africa Cup of Nations in particular – should never play second fiddle to club signings and has “challenged” Napoli not to buy African players.
The 46-year-old’s comments come after Napoli owner and president Aurelio de Laurentiis said the Italian club will avoid signing more African players unless they agree not to attend the biennial to participate in the tournament.
“A footballer, for example, can play for 12 teams but only has one national team,” Cisse told BBC Sport Africa.
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“Clubs will never be above our flag and our national teams. And every Senegalese who plays in Europe, wherever he is, if he is competent, I will call on him to defend the colors of the nation.
“I have great respect for (De Laurentiis) but I urge them to try not to recruit African players.”
The timing of the Nations Cup – traditionally held in January and February – has led to repeated disputes with European clubs who have been forced to release players mid-season.
Napoli lost defender Kalidou Koulibaly – who captained Senegal to triumph at the 2021 Nations Cup, played in Cameroon this year – and midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who were called up for the tournament last season, and the pair missed six club games.
The Confederation of African Football (Caf), the continent’s governing body, said it was “appalled” by De Laurentiis’ “irresponsible and unacceptable remarks” and called on European counterparts Uefa to launch a disciplinary inquiry into the 73-year-old. old.
“Are we to assume that (De Laurentiis) will impose similar restrictive conditions on players from South America, Asia and other confederations, banning them from competing in their continental competitions?” a Caf statement read.
Koulibaly spent eight years at Napoli before joining Chelsea last month and responded to De Laurentiis’ comments by saying it’s important to “respect everyone”.
“If he thinks the team can play without African players, that’s up to him,” said the centre-back. “But I think not everyone at the club has the same idea as him because I know their supporters and they don’t think that way.”
“Of course, clubs are afraid of the Nations Cup, but it is important for our country and our continent,” added coach Cisse.
“The Napoli President is an important figure. I met him once and just by the handshake you could tell he was a serious and honest man.”
De Laurentiis said he will only sign African players in the future if they sign a waiver saying they will not play in the Nations Cup – the next finals are scheduled for early 2024 in Côte d’Ivoire.
Cisse has been in charge of Senegal since 2015, guiding the Teranga Lions to back-to-back World Cup qualifiers and a first continental title.
But the former Paris Saint-Germain player believes African countries are chosen by European clubs when their players are called up for international matches.
“Why should the debate only be about African players?” Cisse added.
“When a Brazilian is needed by his federation, there is no debate. And yet we are five hours away from Europe. In South America they are 17-18 hours from Europe – but there is no debate.
“Clubs should discuss and exchange ideas with these players to find the best solution to help both national teams and clubs.
“We don’t fight the clubs. I’ve spent seven years here, I’ve always tried to have a good working relationship with the clubs.”
Cisse says he experienced negative attitudes towards the Nations Cup when he traveled to a European club to persuade a player to represent Senegal.
“I met the coach and the sporting director and then they said to me kindly and extremely politely: ‘Your competition is great but to be honest we don’t care. What’s important to us is to have this boy at the end of the season because he’s worth €25m to play in the Champions League,” he said.
“I can understand, I’m not shocked at all. But they can understand that we can call when the nation is in its rights [up] our players.
“They can believe what they want, but they should let us organize things how we want.”