Cup of Nations clash creates friction
If there's one Christmas present all football managers across Europe would probably want, it's undoubtedly a change in the scheduling of the African Cup of Nations.
Every other year, the club-versus-country row routinely dominates the back pages as Africa's premier sports event approaches and clubs lose key players for around a month.
And the row seems to grow with every passing year as Africans become increasingly pivotal in world football.
Premier League leaders Chelsea, for example, must continue their title chase without Didier Drogba, John Mikel Obi, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou, while Portsmouth's relegation battle is not helped by losing a similar tally of players.
The story is the same across Europe. The French and Belgian leagues are always hardest hit, while Spanish leaders Barcelona must do without midfield duo Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita. In Serie A, table-topping Inter Milan must do without Samuel Eto'o, but not, surprisingly, Sulley Muntari.
The Cup of Nations storm is such that even the normally placid Roy Hodgson has been caught up this year. The Fulham coach angered Ghana's FA by labelling their request for John Pantsil's release - they wanted him to leave on Sunday, 27 December - as "disrespectful".
Hodgson's comments are not without irony since this is the day that players must be released anyway according to world giverning body Fifa. The normally mild-mannered former Switzerland boss clearly cannot see past Monday's West London derby against Chelsea.
In any case, sympathy is limited, for the oft-repeated cry has been, quite rightly, that Hodgson and other coaches knew they would lose their African players every other January when they signed them.
Chelsea will be without the services of stars Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba
Some players even make it crystal clear they will not join a club unless they can be released for the tournament.
"An important English club once offered me a good financial and sporting deal, but I was honest and explained my commitments with Cameroon, especially the Nations Cup, so I lost the deal," Patrick Mboma recently told the BBC. "But I have no regrets. I was a Cameroonian before becoming a footballer, so my country comes first."
On the face of it, it does border on the insane to stage a continental finals during the European season - even if it made little difference prior to the mass influx of Africans in the 1990s.
Although it now affects some of the world's top clubs, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) still dismisses all requests to change the timing, always claiming that Africa's weather in June is too severe, whether through excessive heat or unplayable rain.
But this is not the most convincing argument, especially considering that the prospect of hosting the World Cup in June 2010 sparked a bidding frenzy across the continent. Many matches at next year's finals will also be notable for the cold, but no one is saying the tournament shouldn't be held because it's the South African winter.
Furthermore, Africa staged vital Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifying matches in June 2008 and June 2009, when more than 100 games were played in 47 countries.
I can't, off the top of my head, recall too many complaints about the conditions then.
So should Caf do the unexpected one day and reschedule the competition to June, as repeatedly requested by the likes of Eto'o, Essien and El Hadji Diouf, the year would also have to change.
It would have to be an odd year - just like it was when the tournament first began in 1957 - to avoid clashing with the World Cup and, to a lesser extent, the Olympics and European Championships, too.
This would surely benefit Africa, as the Cup of Nations could snag an uncrowded slot in the football calendar, thus increasing worldwide attention.
It would also silence European calls for the event to be staged quadrennially, which are clearly the result of vested interests. Did the off-season Copa America receive such vociferous criticism when it was regularly played every two years?
It's important to see things from an African point of view. Staging the competition biennially means the infrastructure in one of the continent's 53 nations improves cyclically - as seen most clearly by Mali 2002 and Burkina Faso 1998.
In addition, the Cup of Nations largely keeps Caf afloat since it provides around 80% of the African body's revenue.
Yet with Caf showing little political will to pander to European calls and move the finals, perhaps the opinions of Abedi Pele may engineer the first step towards a different scheduling.
The Ghanaian advances one of the more relevant arguments for moving the tournament, highlighting the difficulty of performing at a World Cup for Africa's finalists after a challenging European season, during which they've also had to contest a Cup of Nations. Indeed, the Cup of Nations is the only continental finals to be regularly played in a World Cup year.
Pele's view is shared by former France coach Gerard Houllier, but if the three-time African Footballer of the Year is to get his way, all African teams would seemingly need to fail in South Africa, save for the hosts themselves who won't be in Angola.