This was written for The Scotsman, and published in the Scotland on Sunday and online on The Scotsman’s website.
The Africa Cup of Nations is often regarded as a mere distraction by some and an inconvenient disruption by others, but this year’s edition of the competition has more chance of making an impact on Scottish fans, as it will have a representative from the SPFL at the competition.
Hearts midfielder and fans’ favourite Arnaud Djoum will be eager to make an impression following his call-up to the Cameroon squad that will face the host nation Gabon, Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso in Group A of the competition.
Djoum, who was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, before moving to Belgium at the age of four, had been completely off the radar of the Indomitable Lions boss Hugo Broos during a professional career that started brightly at Dutch side Roda JC.
In Holland the midfielder played more than 100 games, and gained five caps for Belgium’s youth sides, before moves to Turkish side Akhisar Belediyespor and Polish club Lech Poznan brought about a minor stagnation.
Since his arrival at Hearts in September 2015, however, his form has picked up and has brought him to the attention of Broos, Cameroon’s Belgian coach attending games at both Celtic and Aberdeen this season to personally assess the midfielder.
Three caps have since followed, and despite high-profile drop-outs from the Cameroon squad that include Liverpool’s Joel Matip and West Brom’s Allan Nyom, Djoum is there on merit rather than luck.
Former Hearts goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi will also participate in Gabon. The Algerian joined the Tynecastle club at the end of the 2005 summer transfer window when Vladimir Romanov’s funds were put to their fullest and most scattergun use (11 players were signed by the club in that window, seven on the final day, including future regulars Jose Goncalves and Bruno Aguiar).
M’Bolhi never played for Hearts, but has gone on to play almost 50 times for his country, including Algeria’s 0-0 draw with England in the 2010 World Cup, and was named man of the match for his 11-save performance when Algeria took Germany to extra time in the 2014 World Cup. He will appear in his third Africa Cup of Nations this year.
English clubs will be the heaviest hit by the competition, with 35 players from the Premier League and Championship receiving call-ups. Arsenal will be without midfielder Mohamed Elneny who joins up with Egypt, Manchester United will miss the impressive Eric Bailly who will turn out for the Ivory Coast, and Leicester City have released their star man Riyad Mahrez and 2016 signing Islam Slimani who will both appear for Algeria.
The biggest losers are Newcastle United, who will be without the talents of midfielders Mo Diame (Senegal), Christian Atsu (Ghana) and defenders Achraf Lazaar (Morocco) and Chancel Mbemba (DR Congo).