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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Out of sight, out of mind no more

Mohamed Salah on a digital billboard for Pepsi, in Cairo, Egypt, May 14, 2018. (Sima Diab/The New York Times)

By Rory Smith

At last, we appear to be getting somewhere. Late on New Year’s Day, Mohamed Salah’s beaming face appeared on British television screens. Salah always has the slightly ruffled appearance of a man who has not slept desperately well, but he was in distinctly good cheer.

His Liverpool team had just dismantled Newcastle United to move 3 points clear at the top of the Premier League. He had played wonderfully: scoring two goals, creating one and missing a penalty so as to foster the illusion of drama in what was otherwise a hopelessly one-sided sporting contest.

There was, though, a bittersweet tinge to the jubilation. That was the last that Liverpool will see of Salah — in the flesh, at least — for several weeks. Immediately after the game, he was scheduled to travel to Egypt’s imaginatively titled New Administrative Capital, just outside Cairo, to join his national team’s preparations for the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins Jan. 13. He does not plan to return to Liverpool until the middle of February.

It is natural, of course, that the focus in Britain — and for those who follow the Premier League in general and Liverpool in particular — should be on how Salah’s absence might affect an unusually tense title race. (Liverpool will be fine, apparently. “Anyone can play where I play,” Salah said, modestly. “Anyone can do what I am doing,” he added, pushing his luck a bit.)

In recent years, though, an awareness has seeped in that this approach might be considered just a little parochial.

Europe tends to command soccer’s attention, dominating its discourse and setting the parameters of what is considered worthy of attention or praise. Europe, after all, is home to the world’s biggest clubs and the world’s strongest leagues and the world’s best players. Europe is, by pretty much any metric, the main event.

The effect of this, of course, is the diminution of anything and everything that does not matter to Europe. The Cup of Nations is not the only example of that phenomenon, but it is probably the best. Every two years or so, it is presented as little more than a hindrance, as if it has been invented purely to test the squad depth of the major teams of the Premier League.

There has long been a consistent undercurrent of conversation suggesting that, for the African stars invited to participate, it is somehow optional, in a way that the European Championship and Copa América are most certainly not.

Recent years have brought a welcome corrective to that logic. There has, gradually, been a dawning realization that it is not really fair to frame the Cup of Nations purely in relation to its impact on the Premier League. Europeans seem to have accepted that it is not really for them to decide whether players ought to want to play in it, or when it might be held. At times, it has even been possible to believe we are on the cusp of a more profound discovery: that just because something does not matter to you does not mean it does not matter.

That process has, admittedly, been a slow one. It is, certainly, hard to imagine that a German player might be asked to explain the importance of the European Championship, or a Brazilian invited to expound on the significance of the Copa América in the way that Salah was asked to elucidate why he wanted to bother going to the Ivory Coast this month, but still: Slow progress is progress nonetheless.

And yet, soccer still cannot quite shake its innate Eurocentrism. There is, this year, another tournament running concurrently with the Cup of Nations. This week, 24 national teams from across Asia have gathered in Qatar — where they had some stadiums lying idle, not sure why — for the Asian Cup.

This is, it goes without saying, a tournament just as significant as the Cup of Nations, and by extension the Copa América and the European Championship. It is, the South American equivalent aside, the oldest continental competition in soccer, predating the European Championship by a few years. It will attract hundreds of millions of viewers and, with an admittedly unlikely combination of results, might even capture the hearts and minds of the two most populous nations on the planet.

And yet, even compared to the Cup of Nations, the Asian Cup is largely ignored. It is not even afforded the backhanded compliment of being presented as a nuisance. It is, instead, overlooked almost entirely.

That might, in part, be down to its relative rarity. Although it is typically played at the same time of year as the Africa Cup of Nations — in January and February, in the middle of the European season — the Asian Cup only happens once every four years. It does not intrude quite so frequently on the European consciousness as the biennial Cup of Nations.

The most significant reason, though, is its impact on Europe. Salah is hardly an exception when it comes to players leaving Europe’s major teams and traveling to Africa this month. Of the 24 teams in the Cup of Nations, only five — South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Mauritania and Namibia — have not named any players drawn from Europe’s five major leagues. Many of the major contenders will base their campaigns on familiar faces.

The contrast with Asia is stark. Only a couple of dozen of the players gathering in Qatar have had to step away from teams in Europe’s most illustrious domestic leagues. Jordan has one, Iran two and South Korea six. Japan alone could name a full team drawn from the game’s highest-profile leagues. (There are larger contingents from the Dutch Eredivisie, the Belgian Pro League and, thanks largely to Celtic, the Scottish Premier League.)

Europe, in other words, is still afforded — or still assumes — the privilege of ordaining what is important and what is not. Perhaps it is not because attitudes have shifted that the Cup of Nations is tolerated; perhaps, instead, it is tolerated because it feels more familiar to Europeans. The teams, after all, are stuffed with players that Europeans recognize, we appreciate, we miss. The tastemakers have not changed to accommodate it. It has changed to better suit the tastemakers.

There is, needless to say, a sadness here. There is a wonder in the very unfamiliarity of players and teams, one that has largely been lost in soccer’s digital age. There was a point when heterogeneity was one of the sport’s great pleasures, rather than a tendency that belongs to a distant past.

The Asian Cup, with its squads drawn from distant and disparate leagues, has that in abundance. Its difference should be its strength. It would, certainly, be worth watching. CBS Sports has picked up the rights in the United States. In Britain, unfortunately, nobody has deigned to do so.

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