Premier League fans may be frustrated but Africa Cup of Nations deserves respect | Jonathan Wilson
Ideally, the discussion leading up to the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations, which begins on Sunday as the hosts Cameroon face Burkina Faso in Yaoundé, would have centred on potential winners, surprise packages and stand-out players. Can Algeria defend their crown? Can Mohamed Salah inspire Egypt? Can a north African side win for only the third time in sub-Saharan Africa? Will Senegal, with their depth of talent, triumph for the first time? Why do Nigeria have an interim coach?
But instead the discussion, in England at least, has centred on which Premier League clubs will be worst affected by the tournament. A lot of international football can seem like an imposition on the club game but it feels as though the Cup of Nations is always having to justify its existence. More than any other competition, perhaps, it exemplifies the difficulties of drawing up a calendar for a truly global sport.
When the Ajax striker Sébastien Haller was asked whether he would be joining up with Ivory Coast or staying with his club, he reacted angrily. “This question shows disrespect for Africa,” he said. “Would this question ever be asked to a European player ahead of the Euros?”
He is almost certainly right about disrespect, but equally the Euros don’t clash with the European season. The issue seemed, superficially at least, to have been resolved in 2017 when the Confederation of African Football (Caf), three months after Issa Hayatou’s 29-year presidency was ended by his election defeat to Ahmad Ahmad, agreed to move the tournament to June-July as part of a wider rationalisation of the global calendar.
But in November the following year, because of issues with infrastructure, the Boko Haram insurgency and the Anglophone crisis, the 2019 tournament was shifted from Cameroon to Egypt, with Cameroon taking over 2021 (Ivory Coast, which had been scheduled to host in 2021, will now hold it in 2023, with the tournament in Guinea pushed back to 2025). Although it was moved by a week to avoid Ramadan, the 2019 tournament was staged, as planned, in the European summer.
In January 2020, though, Caf decided to return to January‑February for 2021 because of “the challenge of unfavourable climatic conditions” with a June tournament catching the end of the first rainy season. Quite why this was not considered a problem in 2019 has never been explained.
As it turns out, with Covid forcing the tournament to be postponed to this year, it’s just as well the tournament is January-February or it would end just four months before the World Cup starts – although as it is Al Ahly will play Monterrey in the Club World Cup on 5 February, the day before the Cup of Nations final, which seems less than ideal for the six Ahly players in the Egypt squad. The 2023 Cup of Nations is still scheduled for June-July even though average rainfall in Abidjan in June is slightly over double that of Yaoundé. Can you play tournament football when there’s 270mm of rain a day? We’ll find out.
The other habitual complaint of European clubs is that the Cup of Nations comes every two years, but that is a matter both of history and financial necessity. This is the second-oldest continental tournament, older than the Euros, established in 1957 amid the wave of independence across the continent. Egypt won the first two tournaments (the second as the United Arab Republic after union with Syria) as Gamal Abdel Nasser pursued a radically anti-colonial agenda. The great team of the 60s was Ghana, which had gained independence from Britain in 1957; they bore a black star on their flag and shirts, consciously evoking the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.
The Cup of Nations has always existed amid a battle for recognition, politically and in football. Only one of the 16 slots at the 1958 World Cup was reserved for Africa/Asia combined (and that ended up being taken by Wales, because of the refusal of numerous teams to play Israel, who were then part of the Asian Confederation; it was the play-off between Wales and Israel that meant Jimmy Murphy, who combined being Wales manager with coaching at Manchester United, was not on the flight that crashed at Munich). Not until 1970, after an African boycott of 1966, were Africa and Asia each guaranteed a place at the World Cup.
Hayatou’s argument was that the Cup of Nations had been established at a time when Europe had no time for African football and, even ignoring that the revenue it generates is essential, there was no reason for Africa to change schedule just because European clubs were buying African players in large numbers.
That is perhaps better as a starting point for a negotiation than a solution but, in a world of self-interest (not that Hayatou was immune from that), at least it represented somebody standing up for the greater good of African football. Patrice Motsepe, who succeeded Ahmad Ahmad as Caf president in March, is a more instinctively pro-Fifa figure.
But whoever is in charge, the problem remains the same. The reality is that European football represents the summit of the club game and a January-February tournament means that, every two years, a tranche of the best African players have to leave their clubs – which cannot be beneficial to their career prospects.
But when can the tournament be hosted? It may be that it is not possible to reconcile the northern European winter and the west African rainy season and that, unsatisfactory as it is, this is the best solution. June 2023 in Ivory Coast will offer a clearer picture.
Recent calls for a biennial World Cup are part of wider discussions over the calendar. As those negotiations go on, the only hope – perhaps a vain one – can be that footballing rather than commercial or political concerns take precedence, and that the Cup of Nations is treated with the respect it deserves.
Cameroon, unlike many recent hosts, has a match-going culture; as a spectacle, unless Covid regulations have a major impact, this can be one of the great Cups of Nations. And that, rather than the frustrations of Premier League fans, should be the focus.