Things rarely go according to plan in African football, as one French publication emphasised this week. The decision to strip Cameroon of staging this coming summer’s African Nations Cup may have been a deeply hurtful blow to the original hosts but hardly took anyone by surprise given the nature of African football’s leadership which has, quite frankly, become a laughing stock.
Afcon hosting has long been a major headache, with the last four tournaments now handed to someone other than the country they were initially awarded to. That must surely be some kind of record.
South Africa stepped in for war-torn Libya in 2013, Equatorial Guinea replaced Morocco in 2015 and Gabon stood in for Libya, which again couldn’t host last year.
Initially, Morocco was the favourite to rescue the Confederation of African Football (CAF) this time around but pulled out last month, leaving South Africa and Egypt to battle it out. And guess what happened? As so often in ballots for global and regional football tournaments, politics ultimately played a crucial part.
As recently as October, CAF president Ahmad Ahmad said his organisation had “never thought about withdrawing the Cup of Nations from Cameroon” who were handed the tournament way back in 2014. Yet quick as a flash, they were thrown out, with the carrot of hosting 2021 instead. Even if it was decided they didn’t have the facilities for an expanded AFCON, that’s a brutally fast u-turn by any standards.
In the days leading up to the vote in Senegal to replace them, Egypt increasingly looked odds-on favourites. The country may only have expressed its interest at the 11th hour but its influence in the bosom of the CAF administration could not be under-estimated. After all, CAF’s headquarters are in Cairo.
According to those media present in Senegal, it was a done deal well before voting time. AFP reported that the president of the Egyptian Football Federation, Hany Abo Rida, was in triumphant mood long before Ahmad revealed the winner. By contrast his South African counterpart, Danny Jordaan, was apparently hanging out in the hotel lobby resigned to defeat.
One reason Egypt won was because of strong government guarantees, always a pre-requisite. Indeed, Ahmad told the radio station RFI: “In the other case, there was no commitment on the part of the government. While in the case of Egypt, there is the commitment of the Prime Minister and above all a budget that has already been allocated.”
But clearly there was more to it than that. Ahmad’s surprise victory over Cameroon’s veteran Issa Hayatou for the presidency of CAF in March 2017 was achieved with intense backing from Egypt. This, perhaps, was payback time.
Don’t forget, too, that Egypt was a candidate for the World Cup in 2010, the first and only time the tournament has been played on African soil. But FIFA instead went for South Africa.
“If you compare South Africa with Egypt, we clearly have an advantage because we have the infrastructure, the experience … just everything in place,” Jordaan had told the South African media in the build-up to Tuesday’s vote. “The politics are another matter. Arab countries are very entrenched and CAF headquarters are in Cairo.”
In other words, he kind of knew which way the pendulum was swinging.
Arguably the most crucial political factor of all was that Jordaan’s federation had infuriated a number of CAF executive committee members over its decision to back the joint United States-Mexico-Canada bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup instead of Morocco – who of course were from South Africa’s own Continent.
Politics aside, Egypt appear to have based their bid on providing more revenue for CAF than South Africa and certainly there is no doubting the nation’s obsession with football.
But it will not be plain sailing. Egypt will use eight stadiums, hosting in five different cities – Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez and Cairo – but has only a matter of months to get everything ready for the June-July event which for the first time comprises 24 teams.
Security remains a vitally important issue. Egypt still restricts attendance at some top-flight games for fear of violence. But no-one will be worried about that at home. Being AFCON hosts is far more than just football. It’s about collective national identity. South Africa’s loss is Egypt’s gain.
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