Premier League stars Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah head to Africa for 2023 Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers weary and disappointed after a 70-match season that ended with Liverpool’s Champions League final loss.
Mane-inspired defending champions Senegal host Benin and visit Rwanda in Group L and should secure maximum points in a competition where section winners and runners-up secure tournament places.
Salah-captained Egypt begin with a home match against Guinea in Group D, then travel to Malawi to face Ethiopia, none of whose grounds meet international standards, reports AFP.
The first three of 46 matchday one and two qualifiers are scheduled for Wednesday and the last three for June 13.
Another Premier League star, winger Riyad Mahrez from champions Manchester City, cannot lead Algeria against Uganda and Tanzania in Group F due to an undisclosed injury.
Barcelona forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be a notable absentee when Gabon tackle the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mauritania in Group I having announced his retirement from international football.
But the spotlight, as always, will be on Anfield teammates Mane and Salah, the last two winners of the African Footballer of the Year title.
According to global footballers’ union Fifpro, both forwards made 70th appearances in the 2021-2022 season when playing for Liverpool in the 1-0 Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid last Saturday.
Fifpro believe footballers should not play more than 55 matchers in a season, warning that stars like Mane and Salah are being pushed to their physical limits.
Vincent Gouttebarge, the Fifpro chief medical officer, sent a stark message: “This kind of working environment is conducive to the development of mental health problems.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is sympathetic to his African stars, saying “Mane and Salah have two weeks off a year in a physically demanding job”.
Short flying distances between European countries help national team stars, but Mane, Salah and hundreds of other Africans regularly face many hours in the air, punctuated by lengthy stop-overs.
When South African sides play in north Africa, they usually travel via the United Arab Emirates or Qatar due to the absence of direct flights and to cut costs.