Last week African football governing body CAF announced two major alterations to its showpiece event, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The changes were met with widespread consternation among African football purists, but with applause from some others.
That’s not to say no hardcore African footy fans welcomed them, but those that did seemed to be few and far between.
Turn and face the strange – changes
The amendments are official, and all we can do now is face the strange, as the 1972 David Bowie classic suggests.
AFCON is expanding to 24 teams, an increase of 8. It is also moving to summer, more in line with continental tournaments around the world.
The 60-year-old competition has featured 16 teams since the 1996 edition in South Africa.
It briefly featured 12 teams in 1992 and 1994, but saw eight teams competing in every edition from 1968 to 1990.
AFCON has traditionally been held in January and February, with cooler temperatures prevailing in the otherwise scorching hot north, and less frequent rain south of the Sahara.
There were occasional exceptions, but no AFCON had been held closer to summer than in May, and that was way back in 1959 when just three teams competed.
The changes take effect immediately, meaning AFCON 2019 in Cameroon – if it is indeed held there – will feature 24 teams and be played in June and July.
Let’s start with the bad news, especially since so many are receiving the changes as such.
A 24-team AFCON waters down the competition. There’s no way around it. Simple math dictates it. To what degree and how noticeable are entirely different questions, but there will be an increase in the number of so-called “minnows” competing in the finals.
Expansion not only waters down the group stage, but the knockout phase as well.
Presumably, 16 teams will now make it out of their respective groups. That’s 2/3 of the teams there. Several third-place finishers in four-team groups will advance to the knockout rounds.
The ills of such a format were on full display at Europe’s last continental tournament, EURO 2016. Teams with negative goal-differentials and no group stage wins advanced to the round of 16.
The jump to 24 teams also puts a strain on many nations hoping to host an AFCON of their own one day. A 16-team tournament was difficult enough for some, but 24 makes it impossible for those countries in the foreseeable future.
This reduces the pool of nations capable of hosting the event to five, perhaps seven at best. Hopefully by the time those complete their rotation, increased development will see that pool swell to 10 or 12 countries, but there’s no guarantee.
Then there’s that move to summer that – pun intended – has sparked heated debate.
Before we get into the logistical challenges, what seems to be upsetting many the most is the view that CAF may be pandering to Europe.
European club managers have long decried having to release their African players mid-season for AFCON. Some have even made veiled threats or punished players for leaving, even if not directly.
However, for all its warranted criticisms, FIFA does protect the rights of national teams and their players when it comes to leaving for continental tournaments. Thus, the fact that CAF changed AFCON season – despite it being 100% legal for players to leave their clubs for it – conjures up shades of Africa’s colonial past for many.
As mentioned, the move to June/July also presents unique climatic challenges. That’s when much of Africa is in the midst of its rainy season and northern parts of the continent experience dangerous heat.
Will every June/July AFCON match in North Africa be played at night? Will matchdays one and two have to be played concurrently in every group as a result? Broadcasting companies certainly wouldn’t be happy with that.
What about AFCON 2019 in Cameroon? Or future AFCONs in Ivory Coast and Guinea? Will matches be played under roofs, or under the deluge of torrential rains?
All legitimate questions that CAF has not yet offered any answers to.
The changes to our beloved AFCON aren’t all bad. There are ways in which they serve African football.
The eight-team expansion does offer an opportunity for teams with lesser pedigree to compete in the finals. This means greater experience, exposure, and more money for less-touted federations and their squads.
The added motivation should also make AFCON qualifying campaigns more exciting for everyone, with more at stake for more teams and matches carrying greater significance deeper into qualification.
It’ll also offer some unique surprises and Cinderella stories. Remember the aforementioned team that made the EURO 2016 knockout stages without winning a single group match? Well, that was Portugal… they eventually went on to win the entire thing.
Expansion should also result in increased revenue from AFCON tournaments overall. How well distributed those added funds will be is another question, but teams, federations, and CAF itself will undoubtedly see more money with more AFCON matches being played than ever before.
Moving AFCON to summer is probably a bit more difficult to justify. I’m personally curious to see how CAF will handle the obstacles of heat to the north, and thunderstorms to the south.
However, the move will finally reduce or eliminate the number of clashes between European clubs and their African contingent.
Players will no longer have to face consternation from clubs and managers for leaving to represent their country, despite FIFA laws protecting their right to do so.
Clubs will now have less ground on which to nitpick the departure of African players, as their non-Africans will either be resting or on preseason tours anyway.
The move to June and July should also presumably decrease the disheartening phenomenon of African players choosing to skip the opportunity to represent their country at AFCON.
The latest and most prominent example being the slue of Cameroonians who skipped the chance to play for the Indomitable Lions, only for the team to win the tournament anyway. In fact, many think the high-profile absentees only helped to galvanize those that were actually present.
It can be argued that such players may not want to play for their national team anyway, no matter what season it is, but it’ll be much harder for them to come up with an excuse now.
In short, the changes made to AFCON are probably ones we can live with. They may have even been inevitable. In fact I think both expansion and the move to summer were going to be made eventually, the only question being when.
I don’t particularly like either move, but I do understand them. And hey, it could’ve been a lot worse. The Working Committee at the recently concluded CAF Symposium in Morocco tabled two ideas that nearly had me flipping my desk over.
One was holding the Africa Cup of Nations outside of Africa (🤔), and the other inviting non-African teams to compete at the Africa Cup of Nations (🤔).
It also debated holding AFCON every four years, instead of every two.
All three of those proposals were rejected, thankfully. Although, it is possible that AFCON moves to a quadrennial format eventually.
So, the lesser two of five evils were adopted. The quicker we accept them, the quicker we can get back to just enjoying AFCON like we always have.Follow @hasasimo