CAN: Senegal’s Ismaïla Sarr is at the heart of a tug of war between Aliou Cissé and Claudio Ranieri

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon

By Alexis Billebault
Posted on Thursday, 6 January 2022 18:22

From left to right: Claudio Ranieri, Ismaïla Sarr and Aliou Cissé. Montage Jeune Afrique; Photos: Manjit Narotra / ProSportsImages / DPPI via AFP; Alex Pantling / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE / Getty Images via AFP; Vincent Fournier/JA

Claudio Ranieri, coach of the British club Watford, is still refusing to allow his Senegalese striker Ismaïla Sarr to play in the African Cup of Nations, which opens on 9 January in Cameroon. This attitude has been denounced by Aliou Cissé, the coach of the "Lions de la Teranga", but also by several high-profile African football players, including Samuel Eto'o.

The decision to hold the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in January and February has almost always led to tensions between European clubs and African federations. Except in 2019, when the competition was held in Egypt in June and July. But old habits die hard.

As 2021 neared its end, some European coaches, such as Germany’s Jürgen Klopp (Liverpool) and France’s Frédéric Antonetti (FC Metz), made very outspoken statements. The former, visibly anxious about the idea of having to do without Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mané, even described the CAN as a “small championship.”

Ranieri and protocol

Watford, an English club where pop star Sir Elton John has been serving as honorary chairman after 25 years as boss, has not made any flashy or controversial declarations. The current 17th-placed Premier League club is fighting for its survival and so CAN is the least of its worries.

The Hornets’ directors, in full agreement with Italian coach Claudio Ranieri, have therefore decided not to release 23-year-old Ismaila Sarr. Ranieri, unlike his German counterpart at Liverpool, has not dared to denigrate Africa’s favourite competition. However, he is thinking more about the interests of the club that has employed him since last October than those of Senegal.

On the rare occasions that Ranieri does intervene in the Sarr case, he makes sure to reiterate that the winger, who scored five league goals this season, suffered a serious knee injury on 20 November in a match he won against Manchester United (4-1) and that he must follow a protocol of fitness.

The Senegalese Football Federation wishes to express its deep disapproval of the disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behaviour of Watford’s management, who are attempting to use all possible means to prevent a player from playing for his national team.

The English claim that they wrote to the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF) on 1 December to inform them of the nature of Sarr’s injury and the schedule that awaits him once he recovers. But despite FIFA’s clause that European clubs release African internationals by 3 January at the latest – CAF had agreed that some players would only join their national team on that date and not on 27 December, as previously agreed by the world body – Watford categorically refuses to release their player, who is nevertheless keen to play in the CAN.

Senghor is ready to refer to Fifa

In Dakar, where the Lions de la Teranga are preparing for the finals, Ranieri’s firmness and that of his managers is infuriating. Coach Aliou Cissé considers Sarr to be one of his key players. As such, he was hoping that his player would be allowed to play on 24 December, unless he was prevented from doing so on medical grounds: “He may not be allowed to play for the three first-round matches [against Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe], but at least for the last 16 or the quarters.”

READ MORE: African Cup of Nations finally kicks off in Cameroon

Cissé, who shares Ranieri’s taste for decorum, has been so busy preparing for the tournament that his federation has not yet released a statement on this burning issue. It was a case of “I don’t know what to do”, to which the club responded by threatening to take the matter to FIFA if the situation did not change quickly.

It reiterated this in a statement issued on 2 January: “The Senegalese Football Federation wishes to express its deep disapproval of the disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behaviour of Watford’s management, who are attempting to use all possible means to prevent a player from playing for his national team.” The body also denounced Watford’s “fallacious” and “specious” arguments.

Cissé and Ranieri have therefore begun a long-distance tug-of-war through their managers. “I think it makes sense for Ismaïla Sarr to follow a protocol. But the one imposed on our player seems very long… If he can’t play for his national team, then he can’t play for his club. It would make no sense for him to return to Watford during CAN. For us, things are clear: if Sarr has not left Watford by the evening of 3 January, we will take the matter to FIFA on 4 January and lodge a complaint,” said Augustin Senghor, the FSF president.

Eto’o and Drogba’s wrath

Another Hornets player, Nigeria’s Emmanuel Dennis, will also not take part in the CAN. However, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), which was quick to denounce the English’s attitude, made sure to not point out that it had sent the pre-convocation email outside the regulatory deadlines. The NFF, which is known for not being very organised when it comes to managing its files, took note of the striker’s unavailability, even though Watford had never tried to be conciliatory in this matter.

These specific cases, coupled with the pressure exerted by certain European clubs who hoped that the CAN would be cancelled, irritated many professional football players, and not just African ones. For example, the former captain of the Éléphants Ivoiriens, Didier Drogba, angrily tweeted: “I was outraged by certain comments made about the CAN, which demonstrate a profound lack of respect for African football. There is still too much discrimination and inequality when it comes to our football.”

Translation of tweet below:

If it’s obvious to us, then it must be obvious to everyone! Respect must be mutual, the CAN for us Africans is the equivalent to the European championship, the Asian Cup and the Copa America.

There is still too much discrimination, inequality with regard to our competitions. When our players go to represent their country, they are often met with sanctions when they return home from the competition. We’re looking forward to the CAN taking place in Cameroon, where all our talented Africans will represent their countries.


These statements echo those of Samuel Eto’o, the new president of the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot).

The former striker and captain of the Lions Indomptables, who was interviewed by our colleagues at Canal + Afrique, said that he felt Africans “were treated as less than nothing and that they always had to suffer.”

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