CAF has failed Africa with rushed AFCON expansion
CAF has made the radical decision of AFCON expansion and changing the African football calendar, all to be implemented by 2019. But not everyone is happy about it or supports the move.
16th March, 2017 was deemed a great day for African football. Change had finally arrived after many years of stagnation and regression. Issa Hayatou’s three decade stay, as president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), had come to an end. Hayatou came to power in 1988 and strived to remain there, probably, for life. During his lengthy tenure, as the head of African football, he had only defended his seat on two occasions. Malagasy, Ahmad Ahmad is the man who finally usurped the Cameroonian.
Ahmad’s nascent tenure has already brought with it good tidings. The credit may not be due to him but it is under his watch that we have finally had expanded CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup group stages. This warm reception extended to Ahmad, by Africans, is now turning into something else.
The conspiracies that were floated upon his election because of his supposed closeness to Infantino could after all prove true. Infantino is the FIFA President. This comes after drastic suggestions of altering the Africa Cup of Nations, and African football calendar, were ratified by CAF’s Executive Committee one day ago. The actualized suggestions were made at a CAF Workshop in Rabat, Morocco, in the presence of 200 delegates.
CAF has made the decision to expand the Africa Cup of Nation from 16 teams to 24 teams, as from 2019. The continental football calendar was also changed from, the current, January-November run to an August-May one. The AFCON will consequently be held in the months of June and July. You may be familiar with this because FIFA also hosts its major tournaments in the same period. And the European football calendar also runs in a similar manner.
Giving up on Football in Africa
What is your stance on these changes? This writer believes that it is an indication that Africa, represented by CAF, has more or less thrown its arms in the air on the issue of developing football in Africa. Shaping African football around the European calendar suggests just that. The solution for our football lies in an insular focus that will place emphasis on local leagues, structured youth development and adequate infrastructure for grassroots football.
CAF completely misses the mark with its obsession with the top-down development model. Evidence for this is in their long-time neglect of the CAF club competitions in favor of national team competitions. And it is not just about the AFCON. In 2009, CAF started, what I consider, a sham of a tournament called the Africa Nations Championship (CHAN). Egypt itself has never taken part in this competition but this will change. This competition implies that footballers based in Africa are second class like the ridiculous African Player of the Year based-in-Africa Award.
This is not just a writer rambling. Examples all across the world show that CAF is going about it all wrong with this AFCON expansion. Chinese effort to improve their football also started with the same top-down approach. They were going to build the league first but quickly saw the error in their ways. Nowadays, over there, it is not about Guangzhou Evergrande winning the AFC Champions League but it is about the $185 million Evergrande Football School.
Guangzhou Evergrande's youth academy – world's biggest football school
➡️ 50 full-size pitches
➡️ 2,500 students pic.twitter.com/wZEGbCw01i
— FootballTalentScout (@FTalentScout) January 3, 2017
While it may not be splashed across newspaper back pages, even Europe and South America retain focus on building from the bottom. If it’s not nouveau-riche Manchester City investing in the Etihad Campus, it is legendary Bayern Munich finishing up on its new Youth team campus. Clubs in South and North America are also building or revamping on Olympic-village sized youth training centers. This is true development.
Bigger AFCON better infrastructure?
One of the two reasons given for the rushed AFCON expansion is the improvement and ultimately proliferation of stadia. Nigeria Football President, Amaju Pinnick, said, “It will force more infrastructure development.” This is a weak reason especially in the prevailing economic conditions. It has become important not just to host events but also ask and answer questions on the legacy of venues.
"But Chiefs are bigger than Al Ahly…" pic.twitter.com/tRTtLUxAlQ
— Joe Crann (@YesWeCrann) March 19, 2017
Beside Algeria and Morocco; okay let’s stretch it and include Tunisia and DR Congo, which African countries are not going to be left with six or more white elephants? Historical precedent is that organic expansion of stadia is the best way to go about it.
We can see several decades of the English top flight league culminating in brand new stadia in London over the coming few years. Compare that to the embarrassment of empty stands in South Africa or South Korea; or the run down AFCON 2008 venues in Ghana. What is needed is a distribution of small stadiums. Zambia has made attempts at this and league matches there look more presentable than the empty gigantic stadiums in Ndola and Lusaka.
Money for clubs not federations
The second reason Pinnick gave was that the expansion would lead to increased revenues. This is true and commendable. But why wouldn’t CAF prefer to raise money through club football? It is their fault that they have a CAF Champions League without Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. It is their fault that Misr Lel Maqassa will be in the Champions League, in 2018, and not Zamalek. It is their fault that clubs like Simba, Yanga or Gor Mahia have gotten to play only one home match, before being knocked out. These clubs can comfortably record attendances of 40,000 in continental matches.
Why do the best leagues in Africa only get only one more spot than the weakest leagues? CAF is failing in the commercialization of its club game and is using AFCON as a cope out. Ask any African in Sub Saharan Africa how many CAF Champions League matches they get to watch as compared to the English domestic cup.
Surely, you agree that we must question the claim that AFCON expansion and calendar change is the best way to increase interest in the tournament. The diminishing interest in AFCON cannot solely be attributed to [European-based African players who shun it]. One, CAF and its inconsistent qualification criteria has done the tournament a lot of harm. It is not wise to have the traditional giants pitted against each other in qualification. No disrespect but few want to watch Equatorial Guinea in the AFCON semifinals or Burkina Faso in the final. They never return the next time. With this in mind, the last proper AFCON was in 2008.
Secondly, it sticks out that Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have hosted three of the last four AFCONs. Of course you are going to have empty stands. Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Zambia have been in contestation to host over this period. Have any of them won rights to host the coming tournaments? Hosting within two years is a challenge but these countries are among those that can mobilize their populations to carry the AFCON.
Lastly, we must consider the quality of the competition itself. As of now it is wanting. How will increasing slots make it better? The best African nation is still a World Cup round of 16-team at best (in a 32-team world cup). Expansion of the World Cup and the Euro are indeed needed because a little quality is locked out. This is not true for Africa.
CAF made Europeans happy
Ultimately, these changes announced by CAF were cheered more around European football circles than among African football fans. There was already consideration of organizing the AFCON outside Africa. I guess African football fans should know their place.
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