The bells toll for the biennial Africa Cup of Nations

AFCON trophy

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”  Aldous Huxley

FIFA’s decision to stage an expanded 24-team Club World Cup (CWC) in China, which will take place between June 17 and July 4 2021, has serious and grave implications for the future of Africa’s most prestigious tournament – the biennial Cup of Nations. 

There is really no other way to put it. The timing of the revamped CWC is a clear and direct threat to the interests of African football.

With the 2021 AFCON, to be hosted by Cameroon, set to begin on July 9 – five days after the CWC final, the questions to be asked are many:

  1. How will Africa’s top players, in the 2020/2021 season, physically endure a league championship of 38 matches, domestic cup games – plus UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup games – and, at the end of the season in May, feature in an 18-day tournament in faraway China, and then travel back to Cameroon to play at an AFCON, lasting for a month?
  2. With the change in the AFCON hosting date from January/February to June/July, it was thought that Africa’s top players would no longer have to deal with the big problem of having to leave their European clubs in the thick of the domestic season for the AFCON.

But a new problem has now been created by FIFA, because every time the CWC is staged, Africa’s top players – who will certainly be in the mix of the eight European teams that feature at the expanded CWC – will be unable to join their national teams to prepare for the AFCON.

They ought to be with their national teams for a minimum of two weeks before the start of the tournament, in order to prepare with their teams.

Depending on the performance of their clubs at the 2021 CWC, they will not be able to join their national teams until July 5, when the AFCON begins only four days later. And they will be flying halfway across the world to do so, which does little for their fitness.

How are the national coaches in Africa going to be able to adequately prepare for the AFCON in Cameroon, and in subsequent years, with this type of scenario?

“I have to say that I am very surprised with the decision that FIFA has taken regarding this tournament,” says Nigeria manager Gernot Rohr.

“It is too close to the AFCON. It is going to put a lot of pressure on the players. There are so many games that they are playing now.”

It is very clear to me that African players are being forced into a corner, because the physical demands on them, in the 2020/2021 season, could compel many to turn down playing in the AFCON, as they will be completely exhausted after an extremely long club season.

“I am wondering what the African members of the FIFA Council were thinking, when this decision was taken,” wondered Frank Simon of France Football, a leading expert on the African game.

“What even makes it worse is that the African members of the FIFA Council appear to be a part of those that approved this decision. How can they accept this?”

“When we had the African football conference in 2017, in Morocco, the proposal to move the AFCON, from January/February to June/July, was made, clearly to appease the European clubs.

“The Confederations Cup was scrapped in order to free up the calendar, only for the new CWC to be fixed at the same time as the AFCON? What is the future of the AFCON in such circumstances?”

It was a question that I put to an informed mid-level official of CAF in Cairo, who refuses to be seen with me in public but with whom I have brutally frank telephone conversations, in private.

“Osasu, is it not evident to you that FIFA does not have any regard or respect for Africa? Or the needs of African football? How can FIFA be staging a club competition at the same time that the longstanding AFCON is played?”

As has never been a secret to the African football fraternity, there has been longstanding pressure, from the European club game, for the AFCON to be converted into a four-yearly event, as against the biannual one that has been in place since 1957 and is older than the UEFA version, which began in 1960.

Whatever one may say about the flaws and foibles of Issa Hayatou, during the Cameroonian’s 29-year reign as CAF President – and there were certainly several – his defence of the frequency and the old timing of the AFCON was absolute.

Hayatou fought, fiercely, against attempts by Europe to change the calendar for, and the frequency of, the AFCON, enabling African football – and the AFCON – to maintain its distinct flavour and character.

But a new page has now been turned. And it is certainly not in the interests of the longstanding traditions of the African game.

From where I stand, the bells are tolling for the biannual AFCON, as FIFA takes over the tournament space many right-thinking people in African football never wanted to be in, in the first place.

With the biannual AFCON being the framework on which the commercial income of CAF is built, a four-yearly AFCON will lead to untold consequences for the organisation and its 12-year $1bn contract with Lagardere Sport, which is already under threat.

Questions that I put, on this matter, to Mr Ahmad, the CAF President – in public and in private – are yet to be answered. And I am hoping that the leader of African football, who has a primary duty to defend the interests of the continent, will explain how he and fellow African members of the FIFA Council endorsed a decision that is injurious to the AFCON.

But the implications of the new CWC and its grievous long-term consequences for the future and health of the Africa Cup of Nations are issues CAF’s high chiefs cannot run away from.

It is only a matter of time before we are rudely reminded of them, most likely at a very expensive cost.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. Follow Osasu on Twitter @osasuo