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

Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis went on an Italian talk show Tuesday and expressed a sentiment that’s more widely shared among European soccer executives than many would care to admit.

“Don’t talk to me about Africans anymore,” the 73-year-old film producer said, per multiple translations. He then indicated that Napoli would no longer sign African players unless they agreed not to participate in the Africa Cup of Nations.

The AFCON, Africa’s biennial continental championship, has long been a thorny subject for European clubs. With one recent exception, it has always been played in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, with European seasons in full swing. And so, every other year, African stars leave their clubs — “the idiots who pay their salaries,” as De Laurentiis argued — and join up with their national teams for a month.

This was the source of De Laurentiis’ stance, one he has every right to take. African players have long been slightly devalued because they miss roughly 10-15% of some seasons. If Napoli and its president value that 10-15% more than most other clubs, and adjust the prices they’re willing to pay for African players accordingly, simple market forces would steer them away from those players anyway.

Which is fine. It’s the business of soccer. “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 Wednesday.

What isn’t fine, and certainly not necessary, is flippantly revealing that stance without regard for the complexity of the issue.

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

“You cannot speak about an African national team like this,” he explained. “You have to have respect like you have for the other national teams.”

Napoli club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis' stance on signing African players is defensible from a business standpoint.  What isn't defensible is flippantly revealing that stance without regard for the complexity of the issue.  (Photo by Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Napoli club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis’ stance on signing African players is defensible from a business standpoint. What isn’t defensible is flippantly revealing that stance without regard for the complexity of the issue. (Photo by Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has long codified that respect. It requires professional clubs to release their players for top international tournaments. And in a non-globalized world, the rule would be a non-issue. Italy’s Serie A would wrap up before the Euros, 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 well. If Napoli’s roster were largely populated by Italians, like it was decades ago, De Laurentiis would have no problem.

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

And then, emboldened by their wealth and amplified by Eurocentric media, they began pressuring the rest of the soccer world to meet their demands.

AFCON has been a winter-spring tournament since its founding in the 1950s. That it now presents a conflict for elite players is a problem of Europe’s own neocolonial making. And yet Europe, rather than elevate the AFCON alongside the Euros — they are equivalents, after all — has primarily treated it as a nuisance. Clubs rejoiced when the organizers moved the 2019 edition to the summer. They whined and complained when it returned to the winter in 2022 amid the pandemic.

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

“The coverage,” Wright said, “is completely tinged with racism.”

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

But it is not treated as such in England. It’s not difficult to see the double-standard throughout Europe, especially when people like De Laurentiis make it explicit. They only know positions of power, and expect the world to bend to their will. If, in some alternate reality, a Canadian club began signing top Italian players, and its season did not stop for the Euros, how would an Italian feel if that Canadian club pressured players to skip the Euros?

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

They have never considered that, perhaps, a far more reasonable solution would be for European leagues to adopt extended winter breaks that would cover all or part of AFCON.

At the very least, they could empathize with their players, and enthusiastically embrace their AFCON participation.

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

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

“Nobody can tell me not to go to my national team. I have a lot of love for my national team, for my country, for the people I play for.”