When it was revealed that the 2022 World Cup would be heading for Qatar, the only people celebrating were Qataris and the FIFA officials that were paid bribes to vote for them as hosts….allegedly.
The disruption to the club football season was unprecedented – literally, given that this was the first time that the World Cup was held in the northern hemisphere’s winter months.
Another international tournament that lays waste to the club season is the Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial event that takes place across January and February.
Premier League clubs know the risks of signing African players and the fact they will lose them for up to a month every second year, but such is the level of talent from that continent that the positives tend to outweigh the drawbacks.
One possible resolution is when a player toys with the idea of turning down their AFCON call-up – as was the case for Manchester United and Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana in 2024.
So poor was his personal form and that of his club that Onana resolved to stick around at Old Trafford, opting for an English winter as opposed to the 30° heat expected in the Ivory Coast. Noble enough, even if we agree that representing your country is the pinnacle of football and sport in general.
But was Onana actually allowed to refuse to play for his country?
Playing By the Rules
Before Onana puts away his passport, he should be mindful of a little-known FIFA rule that could prevent him playing club football for the entire period of time that he would have been away on international duty.
Annex 1 of Article 5 of FIFA’s ‘Regulations on the Status of Players’ features a passage that reads: ‘A player who has been called up by his association for one of its representative teams is, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, not entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released….plus an additional period of five days.’
Therefore, without Cameroon’s prior approval, Onana would be banned from playing for Manchester United for the entirety of AFCON – plus another five days. That would see him miss up to six games for the Red Devils.
The idea behind FIFA’s ruling is to preserve the sanctity of international football, providing a legislative ruling to any ‘club vs country’ debates that may arise.
The same Annex 1 also stops a club from blocking the release of one of their players for international duty if they are called up to appear in major tournaments. ‘The release of players under the terms of paragraph 1 of this article is mandatory for all international windows listed in the international match calendar, as well as for the final competitions of the FIFA World Cup, the FIFA Confederations Cup and the championships for ‘A’ representative teams of the confederations.’
Interestingly, it is not compulsory for players to link up with their nations outside of FIFA’s official international calendar, while clubs do not have to release their players for more than one senior international tournament in a single year.
Who Has Refused to Play for Their Country?
Ironically, Cameroon have been in this position before.
Their defender Joel Matip technically retired from international football while at German club Schalke, but he hadn’t followed the proper channels when communicating his decision to the Cameroonian national association.
So the African side called Matip up for the 2017 edition of AFCON, but when he refused to play he was subsequently barred from playing for new club Liverpool for the duration of Cameroon’s time at the tournament.
It’s one thing having a functional centre back refuse to play for you….quite another to be shorn of the services of one of the greatest of all time.
In 2018, Lionel Messi refused to be called up by Argentina – so distraught was he by his country’s early exit from the World Cup that same year. It was technically the second time that he had ‘retired’ from international duty having earlier done so in 2016, but again he would return and in 2022 he would have his wish of becoming a World Cup champion.
Michael Laudrup is one of the greatest Danish footballers in history, and yet the irony is that he missed their greatest ever achievement – winning the European Championships in 1992 – because he had refused to join the squad.
Laudrup disagreed with the rugged and conservative playing style of head coach Richard Moller Nielsen, and so simply walked away – a decision he would no doubt later regret.
Franck Ribery refused to have a cortisone injection that would have enabled him to represent France at World Cup 2014. Incensed, UEFA president Michel Platini threatened to ban his countryman for three games – citing the FIFA rules already outlined in this article.
In 2019, Mexico head coach Gerardo Martino had a head-scratcher to solve. He called up a squad of players for the Gold Cup only to have four of them refuse to play: Carlos Vela (‘family commitments’), Javier Hernandez (to be at the birth of his child), Hector Herrera (fatigue) and Jesus Corona (simply didn’t turn up for duty) all making a mockery of the notion that being asked to represent your country is an unrivalled honour.