by Matthew West
International football has come to the fore again as the 2015 African Cup of Nations (ACON) kicked off this week. You’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t actually news, as this competition seems to have been played on a fortnightly basis, but Eurosport are plugging it fairly vigorously so it must be of some note. This year’s iteration of the ACON very nearly didn’t happen at all after intended host Morocco pulled out over some would say entirely legitimate fears regarding the Ebola outbreak some western African countries are currently suffering. The Confederation Of African Football (CAF) were never going to let their cash cow sidle off to pasture for 2 more years, so they drafted in a last minute replacement host in the shape of footballing powerhouse Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial Guinea, alongside Gabon, co-hosted this tournament just 3 years ago and there are concerns around the suitability of a couple of the host venues, which weren’t used in 2012. Nevertheless, the tournament is here, and the football will take place.
The fact that CAF have a continental level tournament for its member nations is entirely right and proper, UEFA (Europe), CONCACAF (North and Central America) and CONMEBOL (South America) all host a similar tournament for their member nations, as do AFC (Asia) and even OFC (Oceanic region). The difference here though is the regularity of these events. These other continental football organising bodies schedule their tournaments so they occur once every 4 years, whereas CAF organise the ACON so that it occurs once every 2 years.
The arguments put forward for the specific scheduling decisions around the ACON have, over time, lost their significance, and their strength of reasoning. When questioned around the fact the tournament is held once every 2 years CAF claim theirs is a continent of extreme poverty, and that this endemic financial situation impacts directly upon the footballing community in the same way it would any other industry in their continent. Their reasoning is that holding the tournament twice as often as other continental bodies leads to greater interest in African football, and greater financial income from the multitude of different sponsors and affiliates involved. Historically this very much was the case, African football was leaps and bounds behind its European counterpart, and financial constraints played a huge part in that. However, despite there still being discrepancies between the wealthy footballing organisations/nations and many of those within Africa, that gap has decreased considerably. A far greater number of African based players now ply their trade in other continents, the vast majority within Europe, with a smattering in the middle east, a few in the far east, and some in the MLS, this feeds finance directly back into the continent. You have football academies setup, some linked to major European football clubs, some, like the Cyril Domoraud Academy in the Ivory Coast, linked back to a former player giving back to the continent. The financial argument simply doesn’t hold the volume of water it used to as a legitimate reason for holding this tournament every 2 years.
The next issue to address is the fact that along with Africa’s continental competition occurring every 2 years, it also falls in the heart of the European footballing season, with most of January and February taken up with international football for their member nations, this has, for decades now, been a source of irritation to Europe’s premier clubs, and their fans too. Historically, as has been previously mentioned, this wasn’t a huge deal, as the number of participating nations was smaller than the current level, and the vast majority of players would have played their football within the African continent. This has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, recognition for African footballers has been more prevalent, and the standard of their players has increased exponentially. The days of Mwepu Ilunga rushing out of an African wall and twatting the ball away into the distance as he just didn’t understand the rules are long, long gone, as are the cynical physical assaults of the 1990 Cameroon national side. Today’s African footballer is of a far higher calibre. For the 2015 finals, of the 368 registered squad members, for the 16 participating teams, over 2 thirds play their club football outside of Africa, with the vast majority of those playing in Europe. This means the impact of a tournament scheduled to be played in the European winter, right in the heart of many clubs domestic seasons, is huge. 13 English Premier League players have headed off to the tournament this time around, which seems bad enough, but spare a thought for French football, where a staggering 72 African players have left their parent clubs to go to central Africa and play international football. The argument for holding the tournament in the European winter is a seasonal one, Africa is bleedin’ hot at times and the best fit, weather wise, for Africa, is to hold the tournament in the January/February period. However, is that strictly true? Africa, unlike Europe, straddles the equator and this means that the concept of “seasons” is more about wet and dry as opposed to cold and warm for many of its countries. Yes, those at the extremes of the continent, such as the northern Arabic nations of Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt will be more seasonal, as will those at the southern tip, such as South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique; however those nations in West Africa, and central Africa wouldn’t really see much of a difference between January and June. Take this year’s hosts, Equatorial Guinea, as an example, the average temperature for every month of the year falls between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Would a June 2015 tournament have made any difference, climatically?
The time has long been coming that changes to one, or preferably both, of the scheduling aspects of the ACON need to change. A May/June date would make far more sense in modern football than the January/February one, and holding the tournament once every 4 years rather than 2 is also long overdue. The issue is that CAF, and it would seem FIFA, have no intention or appetite to make any changes, certainly not off their own backs. For change to occur it’s going to need a concerted effort by some of Europe’s member clubs, FA’s and UEFA to convince FIFA to make a stand. It’s only really an “industry” like football that would think it acceptable for an employer to pay its employee huge sums of money for 5 or 6 weeks every 2 years whilst they work for someone else, at the company’s busiest time of year.