Time to rethink the FIFA calendar?

The timing of AFCON is a biennial discussion, with the tug of war between European clubs and AFCON-qualified countries in the weeks before the tournament resulting in countless players caught in the middle. Here, on his debut for Sandals For Goalsposts, Moses Gates suggests a solution to avoiding this issue.

Like every other true soccer fan, I spent three weeks this winter glued to the screen watching the Africa Cup of Nations tournament. When not watching AFCON, I was watching the European leagues. I even caught a couple of games of the initial stages of South America’s Copa Libertadores. Household chores suffered, I started to see spots from so much TV, and I had a dream that Aristide Bancé, Syam Ben Youssef, and a talking soccer ball came by for dinner. Mid-winter during odd-numbered years is a good time to be a soccer fan.

But these good times are charged – and the bill comes due three times a year. The first is eight days in October, just when the English Premier league seem to be shaking out and getting interesting. All of a sudden you turn on your TV expecting the Arsenal game, and instead find yourself suffering through a Latvia/Gibraltar World Cup qualifier. The second is a month later when this sad fiasco repeats itself, except this time it’s the other European leagues that are just getting interesting. And the third is late March, when the European leagues are heading down the homestretch, the Champions League is down to the quarter-finals, Libertadores is heating up, and all of a sudden everyone abruptly takes a week off to play… friendlies. This it’s important to note, this disruption doesn’t just apply to the European leagues – almost every league in the world plays games in the fall and spring, with the main difference being whether the big break is in the (northern hemisphere) summer or winter.

It’s well past time to scrap these three international weeks in favor of an extended international break in the winter. Instead of those jam-packed Januaries and dead weeks in the fall and spring, you’d have steady club football, and a run of international games – including AFCON every other year – during the extended winter break.

First and foremost, this would give AFCON its own space to shine, uncluttered by competing high-level club football – same as the South American and European tournaments. And it deserves it. AFCON is a great three weeks, with quality football and plenty of drama (5 of the last 10 finals have been decided by penalty shootouts, and this year’s final featured a goal-of-the-year game-winner with two minutes to go). Other than perhaps the Copa America, the South American tournament, it’s the only continental tournament that’s interesting from the very first day and has that “anyone can win” feel to it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – no, you cannot move AFCON to the summer, at least not on a regular basis. Doing so would limit potential hosts to a handful of southern hemisphere countries, unless you’re ok with playing in 120 degree weather or a monsoon. AFCON isn’t the only tournament that schedules around the climate – the Asian Federations Cup is often played in the winter for the same reasons, and could also benefit from the extended international break.

The other major advantage to this change is the end of club/country conflict for African, and to a lesser extent Asian, internationals that play in Europe. While not all European Leagues play through the winter, the “big 5” (England, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain) all do, although France and Germany have mid-season breaks that generally extend partway into AFCON. This means African internationals are under pressure to do one of two things – either somehow contrive to avoid the tournament, or declare for another non-African (usually European) country they’re also eligible for in order to avoid these conflicts. There’s no way to know exactly how many more players might play at AFCON if they didn’t have these club conflicts, but we deserve to find out.

Those who do choose to represent an African country currently lose several important club games to AFCON every other year, affecting their overall value to clubs and the transfer fees and wages they can command. This might not have a huge effect on top-tier players, like Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Borussia Dortmond’s Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, but for emerging African players trying take a step up to a bigger league, losing those games can be the difference between a shot at a bigger club and better contract, or spending their best years playing in the Finnish Veikkausliiga. And Europe is where the majority of African internationals ply their trade. Of the 368 players who went to AFCON, just short of two-thirds play club football in UEFA countries, ranging from Premier-league giants like Manchester United (Cote D’Ivoire’s Eric Bailly) to the second division of Icelandic football (Uganda’s Tony Mawejje).

This rearrangement would also be good for the other international teams. Squads would get three solid weeks in the winter to train and gel together, and managers would have a good run of five or six games to try different tactics and lineups.

There are drawbacks. International teams will go some months between playing together. The March break, in particular, might need to be kept in order to make some final adjustments in preparation for the summer tournaments. And several non-tournament African (and potentially Asian) international fixtures would be lost to the elimination of the three spring and fall international weeks. This would likely just mean less friendlies, but World Cup qualifying might have to be streamlined as well – although the recent World Cup expansion will help with eliminating the need for some qualifiers.

But these are small prices to pay. With AFCON, and African and Asian football only growing, it’s high time to have the discussion of clearing club football out the way for these tournaments.

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