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 three 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 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 next weekend. 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 likely the best. Every two years or so, it is presented as little more than a hindrance, as though 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. Though 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 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.
In the two years or so since it acquired Newcastle United, Saudi Arabia — sorry, sorry, the Public Investment Fund, which is absolutely not the Saudi state, and you really must not think it is — has been substantially more restrained than might have been expected.
Considerable sums of money have gone into transforming the Newcastle squad, but even the harshest critic of the project would struggle to deny it has been spent shrewdly. Newcastle’s backers have resisted the temptation to chase a quick fix. If anything — thanks, in part, to the Premier League’s financial rules — the club’s growth has almost been cautious.
That has not been an issue while everything was working, while the club seemed to be ahead of schedule. It becomes more complex when there is a sense that things have stalled. Newcastle has won only three of its last 13 games. Eddie Howe has now overseen three defeats in a row. It is out of the Champions League. And even the club’s injury troubles do not excuse conceding 34 shots to Liverpool on New Year’s Day.
Howe’s work this far should, really, insure him against a threat of firing during the first real downturn of his tenure. He has, as the saying goes, credit in the bank. In ordinary circumstances, doubtless that would be the case.
But Newcastle’s is not an ordinary circumstance. It is one bound up with whatever image of itself its primary investor wants to project. Until now, its new ownership has been happy to come across as responsible, patient and understanding. That was easy, when times were good. Now they are not, and it is hard to know whether Saudi Arabia really is happy to take the rough with the smooth, whether it is ready to tolerate underachievement, whether it is really prepared to wait.
Thankfully, the results are unanimous. The votes have been cast, the suggestions made, the forms processed, the information tabulated, the data crunched and the conclusions extracted and now we can say with some certainty that, if FIFA were to permit a team drawn from those nations outside the top 48 of its rankings to enter the expanded 2026 World Cup, Jan Oblak would be in goal.
Pretty much everyone (and there were several dozen of you) who submitted an entry to the festive challenge set by Joe Rizzotti and Dolores Diaz-Vides — they are not married, Dolores wrote to inform me; their sending of joint emails is purely platonic — decided Oblak, Atlético Madrid’s redoubtable Slovene, should be in goal.
Elsewhere, the picture was a little more muddied. Central defense was not a problem: There were nominations for Milan Skriniar (Slovakia), Stefan Savic (Montenegro), Evan Ndicka (Ivory Coast) and Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso), among many others. Central midfield, thanks to the likes of Mohammed Kudus (Ghana), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia) and Yves Bissouma (Mali), was well stocked, too.
In attack, the options are fewer in quantity but possibly higher in quality: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Georgia) and Leon Bailey (Jamaica) on the wings, perhaps, supplying Edin Dzeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina) or Sébastian Haller (Ivory Coast)? Or maybe a more fluid trident of Miguel Almiron (Paraguay), Iñaki Williams (Ghana) and Benjamin Sesko (Slovenia) would be more modern?
At fullback, though, there is a hitch. A hitch sufficiently significant that you could feasibly build a whole theory around it: that the mark of an elite soccer nation is, it would seem, its ability to produce left and right backs. Ivory Coast’s Serge Aurier, currently of Nottingham Forest, and Bosnia’s Sead Kolasinac, now with Atalanta, were the best a slim field could offer.
But that does not invalidate the purpose of the exercise. International soccer is always about compromise; it is inevitable, with resources limited by borders and birthrates, that teams should have flaws. It is, in many ways, what makes it special. And there is enough strength elsewhere to generate a side that could likely reach the quarterfinals in 2026. Joe and Dolores, consider me converted. Let’s get a world team to North America.