A Matter Of Timing: The AFCON Calendar Needs To Change

A Matter Of Timing: The AFCON Calendar Needs To Change

With the dust now settled following the conclusion of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), it was refreshing to see that the final few articles focused on the competition concerned the eventual winners Cote D’Ivoire and runners up Ghana, rather than other external elements that were not to do with the football being played.

Simply put, too many of the headlines that end up making news have focused on more negative aspects of the tournament, and not the quality football that had been on display in Equatorial Guinea.

The competition did not receive the kind of exposure that it deserves, and perhaps a small change in schedule could be all that is needed to appease all parties and create a brighter future for the Nations Cup.

Some of the biggest football names on the planet take part in the AFCON every two years, representing their national teams in the flagship competition that provides the continent with a champion which will represent Africa on the world stage at the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Along with the benefits for national teams taking part, the tournament is a platform for players to become noticed by clubs searching for fresh talent, especially when the footballer is based in Africa and looking for a lucrative transfer to a European side.

Image Problem

A tournament of this calibre should not be struggling from lack of exposure, but clearly it is. The AFCON should be considered equal to and mentioned in the same breath as the Copa America or European Championships, as it is also a continental competition with a great deal of talent on show and a champion heralded at the end.

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The AFCON has slowly raised its profile over the years, but there seems to be an image problem with the tournament that is often plagued by non-football issues. The problem that affected this particular AFCON, and which inevitably led to less exposure for the positive aspects, was the last minute change of host from Morocco, which was far more accessible to Europe, to Equatorial Guinea. This was due to fears that the Ebola virus would easily spread in any African host nation with many fans and players travelling from affected areas and the surrounding countries.

The risk was there, but Equatorial Guinea decided that it was a manageable risk, and the tournament was generally a success as far as the hosting and management of the potential Ebola spread was concerned. Despite the good press that should have come from the football being played at the tournament, it seems that most of the media exposure has unfortunately been focused on off the field matters.

The second semi-final between the host nation and Ghana did not help matters, as a rampant Black Stars side cruised to a 3-0 lead over Equatorial Guinea, producing an unwelcomed reaction from the home fans who through projectiles onto the pitch and attempted to assault Ghanaian supporters, forcing the game to be stopped for half an hour before it was restarted and finally abandoned with eight minutes to play due to the unruly crowd which needed to be subdued by force and the use of tear gas.

Notwithstanding the fact that unsavoury situations or unfortunate external factors have often dogged the Nations Cup, there is another issue that has been a frustration for many. This is the fact that the prestigious competition is placed in the middle of the football calendar, between January and February, when European seasons are at the half way point.

This is a problem because club teams are forced to part ways with their African players who are called up to national teams taking part at the AFCON, at a stage when their campaigns are at a crucial point, often having to go without the services of these players for up to five weeks, depending on how far their team progresses, and of course, there is always the worry of potential injuries that loom large over these players and the clubs that pay their salaries.

This is further illustrated by the countless media reports involving the possibility of players at the AFCON being able to return in time for important club games in the event that their national team is knocked out before the quarter-finals of the competition. Headlines such as, “Man City dealt Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony blow as Ivory Coast book place in AFCON knockout stages” are the norm during a Nations Cup taking place at such an awkward moment for club sides.

With 368 players picked to take part in the AFCON on behalf of 16 national teams, it goes without saying that a large number of these were based in Europe, including 53 from France’s Ligue 1, 14 from the English Premier League, 10 from the Spanish La Liga and nine from the Italian Serie A.

Time For A Change

Perhaps it is time that the competition’s spot in the sports calendar changed to allow for a solution that benefits both the clubs that provide the players for the tournament, and African football’s most important showpiece event.

Obviously, the host nation would need to be taken into account, depending on climate and social factors, but perhaps the best option would be to have the AFCON take place during June and July, which are the off season months for most of the leagues in Europe and Africa. This would follow the same template already set by the World Cup and European Championships, and would not interfere with club football in the same way as it currently does.

The Nations Cup is currently played every odd year, so it makes sense to keep it that way and simply move the time of the year to the middle, when most clubs are not affected and players will be more willing to represent their countries without the concern of losing their first team place due to missing valuable game time with their clubs.

This is not a new argument, but one that needs to be properly addressed by those who can make the necessary changes, as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and their president Issa Hayatou must sit down with stakeholders to decide what is best for the game on the continent, and surely that needs to be a schedule that does not spark the unfortunate debate of country over club unnecessarily.