For better or worse: Will CAF’s new changes make or break African football?
The wind of change in African football which began sweeping across the continent in March this year with the election of Ahmad Ahmad as President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), has brought about yet another dimension .
Exactly four months after ascending the throne, Mr. Ahmad, a 57-year-old Madagascan, has started to walk the talk with sweeping changes to club and international football on the continent.
Delegates at last week’s symposium in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, agreed to among other things, expand the number of participating teams in the African Cup of Nations from 16 to 24. They also moved the date for holding the competition from January to June and July as well as to align all club competitions with the European football calendar, starting from 2019.
So what do these changes mean for African football?
Simply put, it means an extra of everything; from the number of stadiums, training and accommodation facilities, to staff, volunteers, and definitely a larger budget to host the competition.
Already, there are fears that the expansion of the tournament could create problems for Cameroon, host of the 2019 finals, especially after the country’s Sports Minister denied that preparations were behind schedule; a statement that is untrue.
Another foreseeable problem is that only a few countries on the continent can now afford the budget to host the competition. Even when the number of participating teams were 16, most host nations struggled to construct facilities on schedule. Notable among these was the recent competition in Gabon, where the main stadium meant for the opening ceremony and the finals was not ready for the tournament and was only completed after the competition had ended.
If there is any reason to be more concerned about the new rules, then, it has to do with its impact on quality of football. At its current 16 teams, most supporters prefer not to follow the AFCON until after the group stage games have been played, simply because at that stage most matches are very boring to watch. This has been evident over the years with well attended opening and closing games whilst matches during the competition record low turn-out. In some cases, ticket prices have had to be reduced or even waived to allow spectators fill the stadia.
Opponents, arguing for maintaining quality at the expense of quantity, were thin on the ground. Many football supporters had favoured sticking at the current 16 but those were the wishes of people who are not entitled to a vote.
The attractions of expansion are obvious: more nations can enjoy the biggest football competition in Africa plus the financial and popularity benefits while the extra sums generated will increase CAF’s continental development budget by some estimated millions of dollars.
The overall situation is exactly what Ahmad Ahmad had tabled in his manifesto ahead of his landslide election as CAF President last March: more AFCON places and more cash to fund several of his campaign promises.
Ahmad, himself coming from one of the minnows of African football, has no reservations about the tournament’s expansion and is an ardent believer that the increase in number will help more nations have a taste of Africa’s prime tournament. But at what expense?
At the world level, FIFA’s decision to increase the number of world cup teams to 48 was met with harsh opposition, with many holding the view that it will make the competition available to less fancied teams, hence the quality will be low. Though Infantino succeeded in implemented the increase, many are still convinced it will leave the world’s biggest sporting competition worse than before.
Similarly, UEFA also increased the size of the European Championship to 24 from 16 for last year’s tournament. Popular positives were a reinvigorated qualifying competition plus the finals having minnows such as Iceland and Wales punching above their weight.
Expanding the European Championships last year worked well on the whole, but whether it will be equally successful for the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup is another matter.
The quality of football has been dipping, and the new format ensures there will be fewer early eye-catching games between leading sides. With the tournament starting with eight groups of four the potential there won’t be a repeat of games like the group stage of 2010 when Ghana played Ivory Coast and Senegal playing Algeria in 2017 makes it more uninteresting.
Another fall-out issue concerns the will rise of matches to 50 and whether host nations can meet the sort of infrastructure required to host such numbers. Co-hosting is another option, but in a period where nations are hard-pressed for cash, the possibility of the tournament been rotated among a few privileged countries on the continent is high.
On the issue of change of date for the tournament, there is little debate about its benefits to nations and individuals players and clubs alike. Over the past decades, playing the AFCON in January and February has been a major headache, causing clashes with European clubs who had to release players in the middle of the season. With the likes former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson publicly declaring his dislike for African players because of the potential distraction the African Nations Cup could cause his team.
The changes are a necessary evil for Ahmad’s regime, but a properly thought-through implementation process could ease its negative impact on African football. It remains unclear how much telling the changes will have on the prize money for the winner of the African Cup of Nations.
It can be argued that, this move will be a great source of television revenue and sponsorship since more countries will mean, higher viewership. However, as to how this will be managed by CAF, remains unclear. It is the hope of pundits and football lovers all over the continent that the positives outweigh the negatives, so African football thrives once again.