Klopp AFCON row is a genuine misunderstanding - Liverpool boss knows what tournament means to Salah, Mane & Co.

Mane Klopp Salah Liverpool 2021Goal/Getty

It’s fair to say that the Africa Cup of Nations will have a big part to play in Liverpool’s season.

So, the idea that Jurgen Klopp would intentionally seek to belittle the tournament, as he has been accused of doing this week, seems a little far-fetched.

Klopp found himself in the firing line after the Reds’ Champions League win over Porto on Wednesday night, accused by one journalist of “insulting” Africa with comments made in the wake of his side’s victory against Arsenal last weekend.

Then, he had responded to a question about whether he was “relieved” that there would be no more international breaks until March by pointing out that this was simply not true.

“I’ve heard that so often, that there’s no international break until March,” he said. “In January, there’s a little tournament in Africa, I just want to say, and I think Asia is playing games, too – South America as well. Great, can’t wait!”

Regular attendees of Klopp’s press conference will have detected heavy sarcasm, particularly in the ‘can’t wait’ part, but it is the word ‘little’ which appears to have caused offence, and which the journalist on Wednesday, Ojora Babatunde, was keen to pull the Reds boss up on.

"I think it's an insult to the players,” Klopp was told. “An insult to the fans, an insult to the people on the continent and I think you owe the continent an apology."

Though clearly surprised, Klopp sought to clarify his comments.

“I didn’t mean it like that, come on,” he responded, before explaining that the “little tournament in Africa” comment was “ironic”, an attempt to remind his original interviewer that actually, there are international fixtures between now and March, and pretty significant ones at that.

He should be believed, too. This was a genuine misunderstanding. His words last weekend were not to be taken literally.

“We lose our best players to that tournament,” he went on to point out on Wednesday.

He’s right there, of course. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita will all be looking for glory in Cameroon. Salah’s Egypt and Mane’s Senegal are among the pre-tournament favourites.

Liverpool will have to negotiate January without them, and may well need to dip into the transfer market to make sure they have adequate cover, but they have known that for some time. 

And while Klopp has made his feelings on elite football’s ever-expanding calendar abundantly clear, it would be unfair, in this instance, to suggest he would deliberately downplay a tournament such as AFCON. 

The UEFA Nations League, on the other hand….

Klopp never played international football himself, but he knows what it means to his players to represent their country.

He knows how hard Virgil van Dijk found it to give up on the idea of recovering from injury in time to feature at Euro 2020, and how much it hurt Trent Alexander-Arnold to have to withdraw from the England squad before that tournament began.

He understands the pride Andy Robertson has in wearing the armband for Scotland, and knows that Takumi Minamino often returns from Japan duty with an extra spring in his step. 

And he loves seeing Salah, Mane and Keita idolised by their respective nations. Liverpool hired a private jet to take Salah and Mane to the CAF African Player of the Year awards in both 2018 (Ghana) and 2019 (Senegal), and have worked hard to forge good relationships with both the Egyptian and the Senegalese football associations, in particular. 

That hard work was on display during the most recent international break, when Mane suffered a blow to the ribs playing for Senegal against Togo and was allowed to return to Merseyside for treatment. Relations between the club and Aliou Cisse, the national team coach, are said to be particularly good.

Sure, AFCON will provide some challenges for Liverpool, just as it will for Chelsea, Manchester City, Leicester, Arsenal and pretty much every other Premier League club, and sure there will be concern once the players head out of Kirkby.

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Klopp, like Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel and Mikel Arteta, will hope his players’ hamstrings and calves and knees and ankles hold up. 

But he’ll be tuning in and supporting Salah, Mane and Keita in Cameroon, that’s for sure.

And make no mistake, he’d love to see one of them with a big beaming smile, and a medal round their neck, come February 6.