The African Cup of Nations can seem to do little right. Generally associated by most people in England as “that annoying tournament that takes away our players in January/February”, the mid-season nature of the tournament due to the climatic constraints on the continent (that prevents it from taking place outside of what is seen by most European countries as the “regular season”), means that the occurrence of the tournament has already been debated at length. Now with reliance on footballers from across Africa considerably stronger than 10 years previous, debate about it falling shortly after the new year has more or less died down as it integrates itself more and more fully into the world footballing calendar. However, another irregular aspect of AFCON has been raised for debate recently – it’s biennial nature.
In the context of other regional international tournaments, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious explanation for it. With the European Championships and Asian Cup taking place every four years, and the Copa America taking place on an irregular cycle of about every three years (though avoiding World Cup years), AFCON certainly bucks the trend set out by their continental-cup neighbours. And with the added inconvenience to club sides of losing players to AFCON whilst the tournament is on, and the tendency for players’ form to drop drastically post-tournament, the reasons for justifying the frequency of this tournament (compiled by the selection problems that no other tournament provides) would appear to be a bit thin on the ground.
Officially, the reasoning for AFCON’s biennial nature is all about money. Whilst not shared as a motivation by other associations such as UEFA, CAF deem AFCON to be enough of a money-spinner for it to be of financial benefit to them and the competing associations (or at least the hosts) to occur every two years. Whilst this may be hard to empirically see outside of CAF and the man concocting the spreadsheet, there seems to be some base to this as an idea, and you could argue that you need little more than the fact that the tournament has occurred every two years since 1957 to justify that associations are making clear profit out of it. And in a continent which perhaps lacks investment in football on the whole, more money certainly cannot be a bad thing, especially when relative minnows such as Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are able to host the tournament.
As well as this, whilst international football is generally met with ambivalence and a look of loathing in England, there is the argument that more international football produces better quality international football teams, which African sides can use as a weapon. Whereas England could definitely be seen to lack any cohesion or consistency between tournaments and qualifiers as the team fails to gel together, the shorter gap between games for African sides can be used to their advantage, as they keep the same core of players together. Evidence for this can be seen by Ghana’s very impressive showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where an improved cohesiveness amongst the team from having more matches together could explain why they did better than many people suggested they would.
Not just this, but the improvements that have been made to “untraditional” countries such as Cape Verde, Niger and Central African Republic has been quite remarkable in recent times. Whilst Cameroon and Senegal may not have qualified in recent years, the prize of a place at AFCON has meant that we have seen a far more diverse range of teams playing each tournament, far improving the competition’s competitiveness. It could most certainly be argued that without the regularity of AFCON that this would not have occurred.
However, whilst those on the pitch may benefit from this increased frequency of international football, those on the sidelines may not. Some have made the point that having the competition every two years creates a short-termist cycle in terms of managerial appointments, as poor performance over one tournament can spell the sack for some coaches. Whilst international football in general has a high turnover of coaches (with Ghana having the same number of managers as England since 2004), African countries certainly could be seen as having more on average in a short period of time than most European countries, perhaps as a function of the increased number of international tournaments multiplying the likelihood that a manager gets sacked over poor performance. This could be seen as a very English attitude when you compare attitudes to sacking managers in countries such as Italy, and when some see managers as a fairly overrated part of football anyway, it could be argued to be a tad simplistic to correlate the number of tournaments and number sackings – especially considering African sides have a long history too for political interference from politicians wanting to use football as a propaganda tool.
Of course there is one particular solution that could benefit all parties in this situation – the winter break. Although the UK is one of the few in Europe to not have one, aligning the domestic competitions’ winter breaks so they fall at the same time, and then playing AFCON during this break would solve everyone’s problems. European clubs wouldn’t lose players, AFCON wouldn’t have to lengthen the time between tournaments to cater for this (and would get greater exposure if it was played at a time when no domestic football was on), and would mean that no income from fewer AFCONs is lost, as it is no longer played in World Cup years. Whilst this relies on the fairly big “if” of the UK bringing in a winter break, adoption of this system to benefit everyone could be part of the solution, especially as football gets a bit turgid and dull around the halfway mark.
On the other hand, whilst this would help the structural organisation of the tournament and its wider integration, it may not help if players do not want to play in the tournament generally. The mid-season nature aspect of AFCON means that there are a huge number of drop-outs that occur pre-tournament each time, as players often cite focus on their club side as the reason for staying at home. With a plethora of examples of this, including Kevin Prince-Boateng’s decision to “retire” from the Ghana national team, the fact that AFCON occurs every two years means that player perhaps just devalue the tournament. Each AFCON build-up is dominated by stories of whether this player will feature or not, and whilst it may be a case of the club sides more forcing the player to stay and play for them (particularly during a relegation battle or playing for a new contract, for example), it’s biennial nature means that players may just not place as much importance on it as they would if it was more infrequent.
So in terms of the trade-off between two years or four years, it is a difficult one to conclude. With clear advantages provided on either side, CAF currently have no real justifiable reasoning to change to fit with the other regional tournaments and switch to every four years. Clear benefits can be seen in the biennial nature of AFCON, not only in terms of money but also in terms of the continuity aspect, offering something that no other international tournament really offers. Whilst suggestions of short-termism and player drop-outs have been suggested as reasons for the extension of gaps between tournaments, the basis that this has in conjecture and speculation means that it is unlikely that CAF will change. Whilst I think that we can all agree that issues of short-termism is African football’s biggest problem in general, it is one that goes beyond just the gap between tournaments.
This article was written by Sam Crocker.