Riyad Mahrez isn’t hurt, he’s just at the Africa Cup of Nations

The answer to many of your questions as to where a given player is over the next few weeks


The Africa Cup of Nations starts Saturday and runs through February 5 in Gabon, and does so, like MLS, in defiance of the August to May domestic club calendar that world soccer largely adheres to. Many Premier League fans best know the tournament as if it were a mysterious rash of injuries plucking key players and contributors from a number of teams just when the title race is getting into a crucial run of games. But it’s so much more than that.

Riyad Mahrez is the most recognizable Premier League player to compete, for an intriguing Algerian team (where he’ll be joined by Leicester teammate Islam Slimani), though Sadio Mane’s participation for Senegal takes him away from Liverpool, and therefore might be the AFCON call-up with the biggest impact on the Premier League title race. Arsenal fans accustomed to seeing Mohamed Elneny out of the Starting XI due to Arsene Wenger’s baffling affection for Francis Coquelin will take solace in several weeks of Elneny representing Egypt. Wilfried Zaha, who chose to pledge his international fortunes to the Ivory Coast over England, will forego several weeks of Crystal Palace relegation battles to help the reconstituted reigning AFCON champs. For Bundesliga fans, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be missing from Dortmund to play with hosts Gabon, while Bayern Munich loses Mehdi Benatia’s services to Morocco.

Many of Cameroon’s first-team selections have decided to stay with their clubs, prompting coach Hugo Broos to state, according to AfricaNews, “These players have put personal interest above those of the national team and the federation reserves the right to take action against the players in accordance with FIFA regulation.” On the list? Liverpool’s Joel Matip, Schalke’s Eric Maxime Choupo-Moting, West Brom’s Allan Nyom, and five others, leaving Besiktas’ Vincent Aboubakar as the highest-profile Indomitable Lion roaring into Gabon (though they’re really more Thorn-in-the-Paw Lions this go-around).

But it is, of course, incredibly Eurocentric to think of the tournament solely as a disruption to the club calendar. In a week where a 48-team World Cup was announced—a format that gives more African and CONCACAF teams hope of being part of soccer’s biggest show—the tournament in Gabon allows the world a glimpse at some intriguing squads that can and do go deep into the World Cup. As defenders of Infantino’s plan are saying, Iceland and Ireland and Wales and Northern Ireland gave last summer’s Euros a jolt of underdog energy. The debates will certainly continue (in venues such as the most recent Dummy, to plug), but the African Cup of Nations comes at a timely juncture, providing a microcosm of what an expanded field might bring in the way of storylines.

It’s Cameroon that kicks off BeIN’s broadcast of the tournament (Saturday, 1:50 PM ET, versus Portugal-heavy Guinea-Bissau), with Algeria v Zimbabwe providing live action on Sunday (10:5o am ET) as a consolation for Leicester fans and an opening salvo for international soccer fans welcoming a continental tournament relatively on the heels of last summer’s twin offerings.