It should have been a moment of great celebration, but Shola Ameobi’s first call-up for an international tournament could leave him damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, writes Stuart Rayner
SOMETIMES what looks at first glance like a great Christmas present can turn out to be anything but.
At 31, Shola Ameobi has been given a chance to play in a major international football tournament. It is something we all dream of as youngsters but few receive the chance.
Now he must decide if it is more hassle than it is worth.
The Zaria-born England under-21 international was this week named in Nigeria’s provisional African Cup of Nations squad ahead of Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie.
Having had to wait until November for his first senior international cap, Ameobi knows this chance will never come again. In taking it, he risks alienating the club he loves.
Newcastle United do not want their most experienced striker heading to South Africa next month, not to return until February.
Indiscipline has created enough self-inflicted absences this season on top of an injury list unmanageably large for such a small group of players.
They could do without Ameobi being another.
Cheick Tioté will also be missing after – to great Newcastle relief – Ivory Coast saw off Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé’s Senegal in a qualifying play-off.
Already, though, it could be too late. The cat is out of the bag that Newcastle do not want Ameobi at the tournament. Now they are relying heavily on Nigerian goodwill.
Fifa law is on Nigeria’s side and, having called on Ameobi, they can stop him playing for the Magpies for weeks if they wish.
The world’s governing body might also poke its nose in if its ears were pricked by Stephen Keshi’s claim that “apparently, there is a clause in his (Ameobi’s) contract that he would not dump the team for the Nations Cup.”
Legalese apart, the rules are clear. In essence, “clubs are obliged to release their players to play for their country if they are called up by the association concerned. Any agreement between a player and a club to the contrary is prohibited.”
It would be a major surprise if such a demand was written into Ameobi’s contract but he would by no means be the first player in history leaned on by his club to not represent his country.
It is not the most fanciful suggestion that, before handing him a three-year contract extension at the start of last season, someone at Newcastle may have sought the reassurance of knowing Ameobi was not going to disappear to a Cup of Nations.
For European clubs, the tournament is a pain in the backside.
Unlike World Cups, European Championships or Copa Americas, it falls mid-season – the African climate dictates it has to.
The 2013 edition is doubly frustrating because it comes 12 months after the last biennial competition.
To get it out of synch with World Cups, it has been moved to odd-numbered years, starting in 2013. Contrary to what some clubs think, the universe does not revolve around them and Fifa are keen to make sure of that.
Sepp Blatter did not get where he is without looking after the little associations who vote for Fifa’s president.
Newcastle have already fallen foul of their rules once this winter when Senegal stopped Cissé facing Swansea City at the 11th hour because they were unhappy he had not played for them.
The Magpies claimed their striker’s bad back was not up to flying to Africa in Novembe, and Senegal retaliated by effectively banning him from the next Premier League game. Nigeria’s revenge could be far more severe.
The Super Eagles could stop Ameobi playing from January 5 until five days after they are knocked out of the tournament. That could be as early as February 3 or as late as the 15th.
Whether they invoke the rule and how far they take is entirely up to the Nigerians.
Even Ameobi’s international retirement might not head off the problem.
Any no-show “for whatsoever reason” is enough excuse to play hardball. The biggest loser could be Ameobi.
He said earlier this month: “Every professional player loves to play at major tournaments and I’m no different.
“It will be a dream come true to represent my motherland.”
Ameobi could kiss his international career goodbye and hope for the best.
If the country of his birth take pity, he could spend a month freezing his proverbials off on various Premier League and Championship benches instead of living the dream in South Africa.
On the other hand, he could opt for Nigeria and burn his bridges at Newcastle for nothing. Ameobi is not guaranteed to be in the final 23 when nine are trimmed from the provisional squad on January 9, let alone the starting XI.
With Newcastle scouts scouring Europe for strikers, Ameobi could return from South Africa to find Demba Ba has stayed on Tyneside and a new recruit has moved ahead of him in the pecking order.
Worst of all, he could be left twiddling his thumbs while his club plays FA Cup, Premier and Europa League football and his country competes for Africa’s top prize.
As Christmas headaches go, his could be an absolute stinker.