Sunday, October 1

Premier League fans may be frustrated, but the African Cup of Nations deserves respect | Africa Cup of Nations 2022

IOverall, the discussion leading up to the 33rd African Cup of Nations, which begins on Sunday when host Cameroon takes on Burkina Faso in Yaoundé, would have focused on potential winners, surprise packages and featured players. Can Algeria defend its crown? Can Mohamed Salah inspire Egypt? Can a North African team win for the third time in sub-Saharan Africa? Will Senegal, with its great talent, triumph for the first time? Why does Nigeria have an interim coach?

But instead the discussion, in England at least, has focused on which Premier League clubs will be most affected by the tournament. Much of international football may seem like an imposition on the club game, but it seems that the Nations Cup always has to justify its existence. Perhaps more than any other competition, it exemplifies the difficulties of crafting a calendar for a truly global sport.

When Ajax forward Sébastien Haller was asked whether he would join Ivory Coast or stay at his club, he reacted angrily. “This question shows a lack of respect for Africa,” he said. “Would a European player ever be asked this question before the Euro?”

It is almost certain that he is right about the lack of respect, but equally the euros do not collide with the European season. The problem seemed, superficially at least, to have been resolved in 2017 when the African Football Confederation (Caf), three months after Issa Hayatou ended the 29-year-old presidency over his electoral defeat to Ahmad Ahmad, agreed to move the tournament to June. -July as part of a broader rationalization of the global calendar.

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But in November of the following year, due to infrastructure problems, the Boko Haram insurgency, and the Anglophone crisis, the 2019 tournament was moved from Cameroon to Egypt, and Cameroon took over from 2021 (Ivory Coast, which was scheduled to host in 2021, it will now hold it in 2023, with the tournament in Guinea delayed to 2025). Although a week was moved to avoid Ramadan, the 2019 tournament took place, as planned, in the European summer.

A vendor has schedules for the African Cup of Nations in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon
A provider has schedules for the African Cup of Nations in Yaoundé. Cameroon, unlike many recent hosts, has a culture of matches. Photograph: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / AFP / Getty Images

However, in January 2020, Caf decided to return to January-February for 2021 due to “The challenge of unfavorable weather conditions” with a June tournament that reached the end of the first rainy season. It has never been explained why this was not considered an issue in 2019.

Apparently, with Covid forcing the tournament to be postponed to this year, it is best that the tournament is from January to February or that it ends only four months before the World Cup begins, although, as it is, Al Ahly will play Monterrey. at the Club World Cup on February 5, the day before the Nations Cup final, which seems less than ideal for Ahly’s six players in Egypt’s squad. The 2023 Cup of Nations is still scheduled for June-July, despite the fact that the average rainfall in Abidjan in June is slightly more than double that of Yaoundé. Can you play a soccer tournament when there is 270 mm of rain per day? We will find out.

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The other common complaint from European clubs is that the Nations Cup is held every two years, but that is a matter of both history and financial necessity. This is the second oldest continental tournament, older than the Euro, 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 the union with Syria) while Gamal Abdel Nasser pursued a radically anti-colonial agenda. The great team of the 1960s was Ghana, which became independent from Great Britain in 1957; they wore a black star on their flag and T-shirts, consciously evoking the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

The Nations Cup has always existed in the midst of a battle for recognition, in politics and in football. Only one of the 16 places in the 1958 World Cup was reserved for Africa / Asia together (and that ended up being taken by Wales, due to the refusal of numerous teams to play against Israel, which were then part of the Asian Confederation; it was the tiebreaker between Wales and Israel that meant Jimmy Murphy, who combined being coach of Wales with coach at Manchester United, was not on the flight that crashed in Munich). It was not until 1970, after an African boycott of 1966, that Africa and Asia guaranteed a place in the World Cup.

Hayatou’s argument was that the Nations Cup 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 its schedule just because European clubs were buying African football. players in large numbers.

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Perhaps better as a starting point for a negotiation than a solution, but, in a world of self-interest (not that Hayatou is immune to that), he at least represents someone who stands up for the common good of African football. Patrice Motsepe, who succeeded Ahmad Ahmad as Caf president in March, is an instinctively more pro-FIFA figure.

But whoever is in charge, the problem remains the same. The reality is that European football represents the pinnacle of club play and a tournament from January to February means that every two years a group of the best African players have to leave their clubs, which cannot be beneficial to their prospects. professionals.

But when can will the tournament be organized? It may be that it is not possible to reconcile the winter of northern Europe and the rainy season of West Africa and that, unsatisfactory as it is, this is the best solution. June 2023 in Ivory Coast will offer a clearer picture.

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Recent calls for a biennial World Cup are part of broader discussions about the schedule. As those negotiations proceed, the only hope, perhaps futile, may be that soccer will prevail over commercial or political concerns, and that the Nations Cup will be treated with the respect it deserves.

Cameroon, unlike many recent hosts, has a culture of matches; As a show, unless Covid regulations have a major impact, this may be one of the great Cups of Nations. And that, more than the frustrations of the Premier League fans, should be the focus.

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