|Dates: 9 January – 6 February Venue: Cameroon Coverage: Ten games shown live on BBC, plus news, round-ups, reports and live text coverage on BBC Sport website|
The Africa Cup of Nations should “100% be more respected”, says Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong.
The Watford centre-back said seeing Premier League players being asked if they would honour their national call-ups had been “difficult”.
Troost-Ekong is set to lead Nigeria out against seven-time champions and 2017 finalists Egypt on Tuesday in his first major tournament as captain.
“If it was the Euros or any other tournament, I don’t think there would be any kind of conversation like this,” he told Football Focus. “That would be ludicrous.”
Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright, Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira and former Newcastle and Tottenham defender Sebastien Bassong have also called for the tournament to be given more respect.
Troost-Ekong, 28, is one of five Premier League players representing Nigeria in Cameroon.
Only four English top-flight teams – Leeds United, Newcastle United, Norwich City and Tottenham – have no players at the tournament.
Players were allowed to play for their clubs until 3 January, after a Fifa rule stating clubs must release them by 27 December was changed “in the spirit of goodwill and solidarity”.
“I can understand it to an extent because we are leaving during the season, which is probably different to other major tournaments that are happening. But people already knew that it was going to be in January, for a long time,” Troost-Ekong said.
“Unfortunately, I think quite a lot has been taken away from the tournament and the excitement that should have been there because of those questions.”
Troost-Ekong, who has been at Watford since September 2020, said he hoped the Africa Cup of Nations would get the coverage it deserves this year and shed light on the quality of the tournament.
“There’s sometimes a misunderstanding of what kind of tournament it is,” he said.
“It’s on the same level as a World Cup or the Euros or Copa America. A lot of the exciting players in the Premier League are African. To see them all together defending their countries will be an exciting tournament, whatever people say.”
Troost-Ekong will come up against Liverpool striker and Egypt captain Mohamed Salah in Nigeria’s opener.
Salah has scored 23 goals this season, averaging almost a goal a game.
“I hope he stays as far away from us and our goal as possible,” said Troost-Ekong. “This season he’s obviously been on fire and we all know how good he is, but at the same time I’m very confident in our team.”
‘There’s a brotherhood in the team’
Troost-Ekong said he had sensed a good balance in a team of players who are relaxed yet focused.
“Everyone is willing to go the extra mile, which I think is amazing,” he said. “We understand the challenges that are in front of us, but we all try to support each other.
“And when it’s time to crack a joke, we know when to do that as well. There’s a brotherhood in the team. Every day is exciting. It feels like one big family.
“It’s not just about us; it’s about the whole of Nigeria. We know there’s 200 million people at home that will want us to give our heart and soul when we play. Whenever we play, everything stops in Nigeria for 90 minutes. And everybody watches the game.
“It’s good pressure and we use that to motivate us. There’s that moment when you’re walking out and you understand the magnitude of being able to wear the shirt. That’s something really special.”
Troost-Ekong said the team would be disappointed with anything less than reaching the final.
“We’re not one of the favourites, which I think could be a good position for us to be in,” he said.
‘It was always my plan to play for Nigeria’
Troost-Ekong grew up in the Netherlands and is of mixed Dutch-Nigerian heritage.
He moved to London with his family when he was 12, playing in the youth systems of Fulham and Tottenham and representing the Netherlands at under-19 and under-20 level.
First called up by Nigeria in 2015, he helped them win a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics and has earned more than 40 caps.
“It was always part of my plan to play for Nigeria,” said Troost-Ekong.
“My dad has always lived in Lagos so we spent a lot of holidays in Nigeria. I knew the culture, the food, the people.
“It’s something that I’m really proud of – that it wasn’t just for footballing reasons that I came to Nigeria for the first time. It was something that was already part of me.”
Troost-Ekong hopes he can be “one of the pioneers” for other mixed-heritage players.
“It’s going to become very normal all over the world as you see more, and it’s exciting to see. Hopefully this will open up some doors for other players.
“My kids are a quarter Nigerian so they might end up playing for Nigeria with blonde hair and blue eyes!”