FREE signings can really go one way or the other, as with any signing in this day and age.
For the most part, they are non-descript. A player past the peak of his powers, looking for a new direction or the chance to prove he still has it at a new club. Rarely do they give a club the chance to pick up a very good player close to his full potential. There is no doubt that Liverpool have managed to achieve this with the signing of Joel Matip.
Although his fitness prevented him from featuring in the first two games of the season, his seamless transition into the centre-back role alongside Dejan Lovren made him an instant hit with supporters.
Though questions over Liverpool’s defensive frailties would still be tossed around by the experts, Matip provided an assured presence and appeared unfazed by the most daunting of challenges. And he was saying all the right things off the pitch, displaying a commitment and desire to fight for the shirt, further endearing himself to those in the stands.
It felt a huge blow, therefore, when he was absent for the 4-3 loss to Bournemouth; a result that many were keen to hang entirely on the fact that Matip, among others, wasn’t around to calm things down in the maddest of games.
Despite coming out of a two-game blip fighting, The Reds went through their least convincing period of the season while the Cameroonian defender was sidelined with an ankle injury. His rumoured return for the huge test away at Manchester United provided a much-needed reassurance.
That was until it was revealed, under an hour and a half before the match was due to kick-off, that Matip wasn’t in the squad for the crucial clash at Old Trafford. The reason? The governing body of the football world hadn’t made it clear whether he would be eligible to play. A sunday league manager could just ring up the administrators of a competition and find out in minutes whether a player is eligible. But FIFA? The Premier League? Seemingly not.
Had The Reds chosen to risk the wrath of FIFA, they could have incurred a points deduction and a fine. All that despite the fact that Matip withdrew himself from selection for the African Cup of Nations.
In the aftermath of the 1-1 draw with United, it was suggested that Matip could miss another six games if the situation wasn’t cleared up, with FIFA refusing to intervene in the row between Cameroon and the club. It’s baffling that a player contracted to a club, who made it publicly clear that he wouldn’t be taking part in internationals for the foreseeable future, is being withheld on the basis that the organisation that deals with these situations is actually refusing to deal with this situation.
Now it seems Liverpool are ready to risk any fallout by fielding the centre-half in the FA third round replay against Plymouth Argyle. It’s risky. It could cost Liverpool an FA Cup place, in theory. But there is a Premier League to fight for here. The club believe they have a strong case against Cameroon once FIFA choose to step in, which it seems they will only do as a reaction rather than prevention.
Klopp admitted he was in a very difficult predicament, and one that he hadn’t experienced before, as he told the press: “In this moment, we are sure we did nothing wrong. We are sure Joel Matip did nothing wrong. He didn’t play for Cameroon since 2015. Since he has been here he has not been a Cameroon national player.
“In this moment he is not in the squad of Cameroon, so he cannot play for them, but in this moment we have not a 100 per cent guarantee he could play for us. That is the situation.
“I would consider lining him up tomorrow but I don’t know if I can. From the sports side it would make sense — perfect game for him, but I am not sure if I can.
“FIFA told us that this Friday they will decide if they open a case on it or not.
“I accept rules in life but I think they should always be based on human sense. For me, not a lawyer or a legal person, it is pretty difficult.
“If he had not been injured — but he was — then he couldn’t have played from January 2. If FIFA opens a case — and I don’t know but I don’t think they will because we are sure everything is all right — then it would be 7-10 days until we get a decision.”
With Liverpool still involved in a title race, and having had several key figures missing over a hectic festive period, it is crucial that they are able to get their best 11 on the pitch as often as possible, especially if they are actually fit to feature.
If the club believe they have a case to say that Matip has retired from international football then he should be thrown back in at the next opportunity, to rebuild his fitness and ensure he can help the team in their push for the Premier League’s holy grail. Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal are all on the horizon. We need Joel Matip.
FIFA’s stance on the matter has been less than ideal and shows another lack of competence from an organisation that has been ravaged by corruption charges at its highest level in recent times. It seems laughable that football’s most powerful body is run in a manner that would offend a corner shop owner.
Meanwhile, Cameroon, who seem intent on ensuring Matip can’t take to the field for Liverpool until their African Cup of Nations campaign comes to a close, are almost guaranteeing that their bridges are burnt with a player who has repeatedly chosen not to represent them since his last appearance in September 2015.
Who is the winner in all this? It needs to be Liverpool. Which is why Klopp is in such a difficult position, but is also why he should come out fighting.