At long last, Hector Herrera can take a proper holiday. The Mexico midfielder has, since winning Olympic gold at London 2012, played a major tournament every year for his country: the Confederations Cups in 2013 and 2017, World Cups in 2014 and 2019, plus the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2015 and the Copa America Centenario in 2016.
Herrera, a 29-year-old with the mileage of mid-30s veteran, announced this was a tournament summer too far and that he would not be playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup – good news for Atletico Madrid, who he is set to join on a free transfer from Porto.
Herrera is the most extreme example of the international treadmill that drains the legs of leading players. Alexis Sanchez’s slump since joining Manchester United may owe something to a ruinous schedule with Chile that has taken in a tournament every year since 2014. He is playing in the Copa America at the moment, and in form. Also out in Brazil a sagging Lionel Messi is trying to end his drought of international trophies with the ever dysfunctional Argentina national team.
Messi faces an early return home if invited guests and Asian champions Qatar cannot be beaten on Sunday night. He carries Argentina like a millstone, too often sapped to his teammates’ level, by contrast to the fashion in which Diego Maradona once inspired lesser lights around him or indeed, and perhaps more pertinently, how Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to glory at Euro 2016, even performing as the ersatz coach once injury had ended his participation in the final.
The concept of the international team being dominated by one star is not a new idea, going back to Eusebio with Portugal in the 1960s and Teofilo Cubillas with Peru in the 1970s, but globalisation has made it far more prevalent, with far greater implications and concerns in a world where club football has become so dominant. Football clubs run as transnational corporations do not appreciate their assets being put at risk in an environment beyond their control. The tension between the international and club game is highly taut.
Among the managers looking through his fingers at the summer’s raft of football tournaments is Jurgen Klopp, for whom Mohamed Salah is carrying the hopes of Egypt at the African Cup of Nations, just as Sadio Mane is with Senegal. Playing for a pair of tournament favourites, two of Liverpool’s famed attacking trio could be in action for an entire month in an arid North African summer, not to return until the latter stages of pre-season preparations ahead of their club’s attempt to make another Premier League title challenge and defend the Champions League.
“If we don’t learn to deal with our players in a better way, competition-wise, then it’s the only chance to kill this wonderful game,” Klopp said of another tournament, the UEFA Nations League last month, and that was one played over just four matches. “Because without the players, it’s not a good one.”
With Egypt as host nation, the burden on Salah is particularly strong. He is the shining star, with only Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, Aston Villa’s Ahmed Elmohamady and West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi’s as recognisable figures alongside him. Once the tournament’s hosting was shifted from Cameroon to Egypt five months ago, he was destined to become its public face. An extended 24-team tournament has moved from its usual January-February slot to a June-July schedule.
That stops Salah being spirited away mid-season, as was once so unpopular with English club managers, with Sam Allardyce leading the dissent, but it stops players gaining invaluable downtime during summers.
On Friday evening, Salah, like Messi and Sanchez, was central as his team got the tournament under way with a hard-won, and not altogether convincing, 1-0 defeat of Zimbabwe. Salah is asked to do much more with the ball than he has been with Liverpool, where his job is to get on the end of things. Instead, he could be found attempting Messi-style soloing, and not altogether successfully. The main man is always a marked man, and Zimbabwe had laid down heavy traffic for him to weave through. Salah’s already looks like being a sacrificial role, in which he lures defenders into creating space for teammates – it was Mahmoud Hassan, known as Trezeguet, who scored the first goal of the tournament.
Still, it was all rather unconvincing. Egypt, having not lost to a fellow African team for five years, and who were losing finalists two years ago, are heavily fancied, and that is mostly down to Salah being, aside from Mane, his continent’s top man. He arrived at the tournament in form, having scored in the Champions League final, and been among the goals as Liverpool went within a whisker of winning a first league title since 1990,
— Mohamed Salah (@MoSalah) June 19, 2019
Better form and fitness, then, than a year ago at the World Cup when Salah cut a sorry sight, playing in Russia against all known medical advice after having his shoulder dislocated by Sergio Ramos in 2018’s Champions League final. As Egypt shambled out of their first finals since 1990, Salah was unable to halt their slide, despite scoring two goals.
That disappointment took place while all was not well behind the scenes with Salah, embroiled in a dispute over image rights. His face and name were used to promote a rival phone company to that with which he has a personal endorsement deal, and Salah kicked out in public, taking his country’s confederation to task on Twitter. That followed him being used, and unwittingly it appeared, as a political symbol, as a propaganda tool when being photographed alongside by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s ruler, who also granted him “honorary citizenship”.
His relationship with his home country has been terse at further times.
On a recent visit back home, he was moved to complain that his holiday was disrupted by a huge press presence outside his residence. It is a state of affairs he could doubtless compare notes with Messi and Ronaldo on, though the latter wears the crown far more comfortably than his great rival.
Salah came through his country’s first test on Friday, and much to Klopp’s chagrin, can be expected to play every possible minute until Egypt’s tournament is done. Such is the opportunity cost of having a country’s undisputed leading man.