African talent on review

Three-quarters of Premier League clubs have sent scouts to the Africa Cup of Nations as the chase for the continent’s finest talent intensifies.

A BBC Sport survey has discovered 15 of the 20 clubs are scouting at the Ghana tournament despite calls for it to be switched to the summer.

“You know when you’re buying an African player that’s the rule,” Chelsea chief scout Frank Arnesen told BBC Sport.

“You have to deal with that and it’s a must for us to be at the Nations Cup.”

Portsmouth’s Harry Redknapp, Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Avram Grant are just three of the Premier League bosses to have criticised the Nations Cup’s timing between January and February during the middle of the European season.

Yet only five of the 20 clubs BBC Sport contacted said they would not be sending scouts to the tournament.

Portsmouth do not have scouts in Ghana, but former Arsenal defender Gilles Grimandi is in Ghana for the Gunners, while Arnesen has sent two scouts to monitor the tournament.

The likes of Redknapp, Wenger and Grant believe it should fall in line with the world’s other major football competitions and be staged in the summer, when tournaments like the European Championships or the Copa America are held.

“It’s not fair for the European leagues to lose players in a period that’s very important,” admitted Arnesen, a former director of football at PSV Eindhoven and sporting director at Tottenham.

But for all their criticism, clubs appear equally determined not to risk missing out on future world-class players.

Whereas just eight Premier League players travelled to the 2002 Nations Cup in Mali, a staggering 35 made the trip to Ghana in 2008.

“It’s an exceptionally high quality tournament and there’s some great, great players there,” said Reading’s director of football Nicky Hammond.

“Over the last few years Africa has really come to the forefront of producing some top, top players, so for us it is a very good tournament to cover.”

“We’ll be monitoring the Nations Cup very closely,” said Newcastle’s first-team coach Steve Round.

“There are specific players playing in the tournament, who are also playing in Europe and domestically in England, and we will keep an eye on them, target them, get them into our radar and keep progressively looking at them over the course of the next few months.”

Arnesen insists Chelsea are already aware of every player competing and that the tournament is not a place to uncover fresh talent, rather monitor players for the future.

But Bolton’s chief scout Colin Harvey and his assistant Terry Darracott have gone to Ghana with “a blank sheet of paper”.

Middlesbrough have travelled with both specific targets – BBC Sport understands FC Zurich’s Tunisian forward Yassine Chikhaoui is one – and an open mind.

Either way, Premier League clubs seem to need little convincing of the value African players can provide and it appears the continent will be viewed as a key scouting destination for many years to come.

“Over the past 20 years the progression of African players has been explosive,” said Arnesen.

“They’re playing on the highest level and they’re doing well and that’s why everyone is looking at them.

“Maybe 10 or 15 years ago you knew a few players from every team but not 11.

“Now you go out and see Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and you know all 11 players and even the bench.

“The Nations Cup is now on a level with the South American and European Championships.”