January brings with it a hectic schedule of domestic league and cup games, but for Spanish football’s African contingent, the month will largely consist of Africa Cup of Nations action. There’s a sizable contingent of African players in LaLiga, the Segunda Division and even further down the Spanish football pyramid who will be strutting their stuff in Cameroon throughout January and potentially into the first week of February.
In LaLiga, Villarreal and Sevilla are the clubs most affected by the tournament with some big names heading off to join their international teams for the competition which began on Sunday in Yaoundé. Household names to fans of LaLiga such as Samuel Chukwueze and Youssef En-Nesyri are among the players who could light up the Africa Cup of Nations, which was initially scheduled to take place last year but delayed because of Covid-19. However there are also plenty of lesser known players plying their trade in the Spanish lower leagues who will be hoping to make their mark.
Villarreal Quartet expected to shine
In terms of the tournament’s impact on LaLiga, Villarreal are the side worst hit with four players jetting off for AFCON action. They all play for sides expected to do well in what is a 24-team tournament so the Yellow Submarine may end up waiting several weeks to get their men back at the Estadio Ceramica.
Group E will see two Villarreal players face off. Aïssa Mandi is a key defender for current AFCON holders Algeria and will be hoping to use the tournament as something of a launchpad after a mixed time of it in the Valencian Community since his summer move from Betis. A run of games may be just what he needs to find some rhythm and he’s set to face off against clubmate Serge Aurier on 20th January when Algeria face Ivory Coast in a clash which may decide the group winner. Aurier is an even newer arrival in Villarreal where he has made a handful of appearances since leaving Tottenham and is also a key man and captain of his national team.
At the other end of the pitch, two exciting Villarreal attacking players will also be hoping to make a big impression. Samuel Chukwueze is one of the brightest young African players and while he hasn’t quite kicked on as many expected following his breakthrough 2018/19 campaign in LaLiga, the now 22 year old still possesses enough talent to make a big impact in Cameroon. He will be in action as Nigeria face a blockbuster opening game against Egypt on Tuesday.
Villarreal fans will also be looking out for Boulaye Dia who is perhaps their biggest loss having hit form in LaLiga in recent weeks with a brace and an assist against Alaves and a goal and an assist against Levante in his last two outings for the Yellow Submarine. Dia started for tournament favourites Senegal in their opening match, a somewhat laboured 1-0 win over Zimbabwe on Monday.
Sevilla Trio lead strong Moroccan Challenge
Anyone connected with Sevilla will be taking a keen interest in Morocco’s fortunes in the tournament. The North African nation are among the favourites with a strong squad that includes three Sevilla players.
Yassine Bounou is clear number one for club and country and is expected to be one of the standout goalkeepers in the tournament. He was a big part of a Morocco side that kept 12 clean sheets in 14 internationals in 2021 and the Sevilla shot-stopper kept another as Morocco kicked off their AFCON campaign with an important 1-0 win over Ghana on Monday.
Bono’s clubmate Youssef En-Nesyri is another really important player for Morocco but the striker is still struggling for fitness having missed most of the last two months due to injury. Sevilla will be hoping their first choice striker can build up his match sharpness when he hopefully returns later in Morocco’s campaign. Fellow forward Munir El Haddadi is the third Sevilla player in the Moroccan squad but the former Barcelona man was an unused sub in their opening fixture.
Equatorial Guinea – A Team built in the Spanish lower Leagues
If you’re a big fan of Spanish football but don’t yet have a team for the Africa Cup of Nations, Equatorial Guinea seems like the natural choice! Their squad for the tournament largely consists of players based in Spain, most of which are playing for clubs in the lower leagues.
There is some LaLiga representation too with Cadiz full-back Carlos Akapo and 20 year old Alaves goalkeeper Jesús Owono, who recently made his first start for the Basque club on 2nd January against Real Sociedad. Álex Balboa is another 20 year old Alaves player in the Equatorial Guinea squad but he has so far only featured for the club’s B team.
Dropping down into the Segunda Division, Fuenlabrada’s Iban Salvador is another of Equatorial Guinea’s more experienced players with 27 international caps. He is joined in the squad by 22 year old Las Palmas defender Saúl Coco who has also briefly featured in the Segunda this term.
The West African minnows can also count on the services of two Hercules midfielders in the shape of Rubén Belima and Federico Bikoro. They’ll be competing for starts alongside fellow Segunda RFEF player Pablo Ganet of Real Murcia in midfield. In defence, 23 year old Esteban Obiang of Andalsuian side Antequera is expected to feature while Luis Meseguer of Navalcarnero could also see some action.
The likes of Jannick Buyla (Gimnàstic), Javier Akapo (Ibiza Islas Pitiusas), Dorian Jr (Langreo) and Marvin Anieboh (Cacereño) add depth to a squad that is packed with Spanish-born players but it’s safe to say Equatorial Guinea are not one of the favourites for the tournament and their preparations haven’t been helped by a number of Covid-19 cases.
Sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon on the West Coast of Africa, this is the first time the tiny nation, which was ruled by Spain until 1968, is competing in the tournament on foreign soil, having previously exceeded expectations by reaching the Quarter-Finals as co-hosts in 2012 and Semi-Finals as hosts in 2015.
The Best of the Rest
Elsewhere Nigeria are the side with the second largest Spain-based contingent. Joining the aforementioned Chukwueze, the Super Eagles can count upon the services of Leganes defender Kenneth Omeruo who has won more than 50 caps for his country. Uncapped duo of Huesca midfielder Kelechi Nwakali and Almeria striker Umar Sadiq have also been rewarded with call-ups. The latter has been in fine form in the Segunda Division for the Andalusian side having netted 28 league goals since the start of last term.
There are a few other familiar names for fans of LaLiga to look out for in the tournament. Mallorca’s Iddrisu Baba started in midfield for Ghana in their opening game. Meanwhile Alaves’ Mamadou Loum was on the bench for Senegal in their first match against Zimbabwe who included Zamora keeper Martin Mapisa among their substitutes.
Real Valladolid’s Swiss-born Saidy Janko is expected to feature prominently for The Gambia having elected to represent the country in 2021. Burkina Faso are another team to keep an eye on with 33 year old Adama Guira of 4th tier Racing Rioja hoping to contribute in what may be his last crack at international glory.
The Africa Cup of Nations follows the same format as the Euros with 24 teams divided into 6 groups before a knockout stage involving 16 teams. The Final will take place on 6th February at the Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. The hosts will be hungry to be there and stand a chance but the likes of Senegal, Algeria and Egypt are also strong contenders to win the first major trophy of 2022 – an important year for international football which concludes with the World Cup in Qatar.