By Andrew Warshaw
July 20 – The biennial club-versus-country row that has dogged African football’s major competition looks set to end after a landmark decision to switch the African Cup of Nations from January to June.
Mirroring the European Championship finals, the tournament is also being expanded to 24 teams but will continue to be held every two years.
The decisions, taken at a workshop in Morocco on the future of the Continent’s showpiece tournament, must still be ratified by the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) executive committee today but represent the biggest shake-up for years.
The timing of the Nations Cup finals, right in the middle of the long European league season, has long been a bone of contention since most of the players involved ply their trade in Europe and have to make the choice between staying with their employers at a crucial time or representing their country.
The move to add another eight teams to the finals, the next edition of which takes place in Cameroon in 2019, follows the expansion of the European Championship last year, also to 24 teams, and the World Cup, which will go to 48 teams from 2026.
The increase is an attempt to boost marketing and TV revenue, taking a leaf out of UEFA’s book.
“From a sporting perspective, it will allow more opportunity for footballers across the continent. It will increase revenue for CAF and we can triple our income. It will also force more infrastructure development,” said Nigerian Football Federation President Amaju Pinnock, a CAF executive committee member.
But Pinnock and his colleagues stopped short of changing the AFCON finals to every four years instead of the current two, precisely because of the revenue it generates and the need for competitive matches for smaller African nations.
Interestingly, delegates made it clear that future hosts would have to prove they had the necessary infrastructure for an expanded competition. Morocco, so often the bridesmaid and never the bride, has already stated it would be prepared to step in if Cameroon cannot meet the requirements.
Not all the recommendations drew unanimous support with some of those present warning that co-hosting would become inevitable since few African countries had the capacity to stage a 24-team finals on their own. Among the voices objecting to the wind of change was former Cameroon goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell.
“This will restrict to just a handful the number of African countries who are able to host future Nations Cup,” he said.
But Europe’s top clubs will be delighted with the radical overhaul that was long resisted by Issa Hayatou but quickly placed in motion by his CAF presidential successor Ahmad Ahmad.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who is alleged to have played a crucial and highly controversial role in Ahmad’s election victory over Hayatou, also made it clear he welcomed the changes.
“This could be a crucial day for African football,” Infantino is reported to have told delegates. “It could mark a real change. All the stakeholders interested in this beautiful game in the future have to work to develop African football and bring it to where it belongs‚ at the top of world football.”
Also proposed was CAF’s two annual club competitions – the African Champions League and African Confederation Cup – running from August to May rather than inside a calendar year, as has been the case for decades.
One unexpected suggestion was to open AFCON to “three or four teams from other continents” though this seems too radical a move and is unlikely to gain approval in the short term.
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