“I love the fact that we have so many African players … until the Africa Cup of Nations starts. Then it’s: ‘Oh my God!’” says Jürgen Klopp, breaking into his famous guffaw.
Six weeks to the day since Liverpool’s victory over Tottenham in the Champions League ended his personal run of six straight defeats in major finals, Klopp is in his office at the club’s Melwood training ground. For once, though, as he leans back on the sofa loading up a new vape, the former striker turned central defender, who has become one of football’s most famous personalities, seems to be only half-joking.
“It’s still better than it used to be because before they were out in the middle of the season,” he adds. “In the past because the Africa Cup of Nations was in the winter it was really a reason not to sign an African player because you would lose him for four weeks in the middle of the season. That was really something we had in our minds always.”
In purchasing Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keïta in successive summers between 2016 and 2018, Liverpool broke the African transfer record three times. It has certainly paid dividends. Although Keïta – the Guinea midfielder who was handed Steven Gerrard’s famous No 8 shirt when he moved from RB Leipzig in June 2018 for almost £53m – struggled with injuries in his debut season, the goalscoring exploits of Senegal’s Mané and Salah of Egypt helped transform Liverpool from Premier League also-rans into European champions.
Klopp’s views on the new scheduling of Africa’s biennial tournament would be put to the test a few days later when Mané’s Senegal side contested the final against Algeria in Cairo – his 55th game of an exhausting but prolific season – just two weeks before the Community Shield against Manchester City. The decision to move the 2021 tournament in Cameroon back to January would later test his patience even further, although the man who spent most of his own playing career at Mainz in the German second division before becoming one of the world’s best managers can claim to have played a special role in the story of African players in English football.