AUGUSTINE MUKOKA, Lusaka
TEN days ago, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced a new format to the Africa Cup of Nations effective at the 33rd edition
set for Cameroon in 2019.
Twenty-four teams will make the party, an increase from 16 finalists that have traditionally competed for honours since 1996.
For sixty years now, the Africa Cup of Nations has grown from three teams at inception in 1957 to eight, 12, 16 and now 24. The latest change was made in addition to a switch in dates.
New CAF president Ahmad Ahmad’s executive committee has moved the competition from its traditional January to February window to June and July when major events such as the World Cup and European Championship are held.
The switch in dates finally settles a long standing ‘rift’ that would emerge between European clubs and African countries over player availability.
A good number of players have seemingly welcomed the switch while others, prominently among them, former Uganda coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic believes the idea was to appease Europe.
Sredojevic, a Serb, is quoted by BBC Sport, “Though not directly, Africa succumbed to the pressure of Europe to have this tournament played when it’s best for them. I have never believed some of these theories that come from Europe on having the AfCON in January and February.”
A good number of African players in foreign leagues are delighted the change has come. This change is expected to give Europe-based players an opportunity to give their African countries undivided attention when summoned for national duty during this period.
Undoubtedly, the idea to switch the Africa Cup of Nations to June-July, is good but truth be told CAF has succumbed to a silent directive from UEFA. And this is why the likes of Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho say this is a “fantastic” development.
Oh, yes, fantastic in the sense that European clubs relying on African talent will compete for honours uninterrupted midway through the season. Although fantastic for Europe, it is also progressive for Africa.
The flagship football event on the continent will have an opportunity to maximise on television and commercial rights largely because during this period when major leagues are on recess broadcast houses will look for good to keep their viewership engaged.
And the Africa Cup of Nations is one such hot cake especially in a period when major leagues such as the Premiership, La Liga, Seria A and Bundesliga are on recess.
In addition to revenue, the tournament could be a good dress rehearsal for the continent’s top nine in a year the World Cup is staged.
Teams that qualifying for the World Cup will find the tournament a good preparatory platform. The downside, however, is having players burn out having competed throughout the year without sufficient rest. This may make them prone to injuries.
For those players budding to break into the European league, a June-July Africa Cup is also the perfect platform. All major recruiters, scouts and coaches will set their eyes on the tournament, and a good number of them may even travel.
Admittedly, the pros of this development outweigh the cons. So even if CAF does not concede they have been arm-twisted, in arriving at the switch, they have some valid reasons to have obliged provided they demonstrate the benefits will trickle down to their members.
Perhaps, the only favour CAF may do us is to remind their colleagues in Europe ours is not a summer Africa Cup.
The weather pattern in Africa significantly differs from that in Europe or other countries in the West and Asia.
Depending on which region hosts the tournament in Africa, June to July will never bring the event any close to summer. The closest it may come to is a Winter Africa Cup of Nations.
Switching the dates may be good for African football, but increasing the number of teams from 16 to 24 may pose a challenge for a lot of countries on a continent beset by poor infrastructure and struggling economies.
This increase places a huge responsibility on hosting countries to have at least six good stadiums, 24 training venues, 24 good hotels and a good budget to organise a smooth event. Do African countries have the capacity?
Yes, some countries in North, West Africa and southern Africa may have a minimum of six stadiums, but these are less than half the members of CAF. The option to co-host will come in handy.
But the fact that some countries don’t have sufficient infrastructure to host the event is the reason CAF has advanced to strip hosting rights from Ivory Coast and Guinea who were awarded the 2021 and 2023 editions respectively.
Yet countries like Zambia, with two international stadia, are hoping to jump on the bidding wagon for 2021. Wait a minute! It’s an excellent idea for Zambia to bid for the event, but do we have better sports infrastructure than Ivory Coast? Those well-travelled will doubt.
In any case, Ivory Coast would argue they have hosted this tournament before although it was only eight countries that took part in 1984. Zambia, on one hand, can claim they are better placed having recently staged the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations which is CAF’s second biggest event.
However, a critical view into the motivation to increase AfCON finalists can as well be traced from a rather smart ‘political’ move by the new CAF president. Ahmad largely owes his ascendancy to the summit of CAF to Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) members.
And one of his major campaign promises was to review how West Africa was awarded five consecutive editions of the continental showpiece.
It would seem increasing the number of participants and claiming the two prospective hosts in 2021 and 2023 have no capacity is a more diplomatic way of sharing the cake equally rather than trying to point an accusing figure of alleged impropriety by those that came before the current decision as the reason behind the change.
Not a bad way of rewarding loyalty. After all, any winning candidate with a sense of gratitude would first look to those who put their heads on the chopping board for him or her.
Mind you, there is another CAF election in a few years and Ahmad will surely be seeking a second term. Ignoring the people and countries that catapulted him to the CAF top job is too risky a path to contemplate.
The remote way of looking at this expansion is the shift power from one base to another, but one cannot deny its potential to enrich the game.
An increase in the number of finalists means more matches on television, and that translates into increase income for CAF mostly from broadcast and commercial rights.
This, hopefully, will turn into better rewards for the participating teams and eventual winner. With increased revenue from 52 matches, I can hope CAF will increase the prize money for the winners from the US$4 million awarded in 2017 to a minimum of US$8 million which is what teams get for qualifying to the World Cup.