Change to AFCON calendar – Boost for Southern African football
By Robson Sharuko
Harare – African football is set for some major changes, including a possible expansion of the number of teams that could take part in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), at a landmark meeting of the continent’s leaders in Morocco this week.
The AFCON tournament could also be moved from its traditional January and February slots, which has caused a lot of acrimony between the African nations and major European clubs who are deprived of the services of some of their best players during that period, leading to some footballers from this continent to choose clubs ahead of their countries.
In January this year, a row erupted between Cameroon and English giants Liverpool over the availability of defender Joel Matip for the Indomitable Lions’ 2017 AFCON finals, with FIFA being forced to intervene, before an ugly settlement saw the gangly centre back announcing his retirement from international football.
European countries have always insisted that the Nations Cup finals should be held in June and July, when their club calendar is having a break, just like the FIFA World Cup finals and the European Championships, which could end the club-versus-country row that has blighted many AFCON finals.
However, the old CAF leadership under Cameroonian strongman Issa Hayatou kept refusing to embrace such changes saying in most parts of Southern Africa, it’s very cold during the June/July months while in other parts of the continent it would be very wet.
Hayatou’s successor, Ahmad Ahmad has been calling for changes to the way the continent used to conduct its football business and has drafted a number of African football legends to help him move the game forward.
Those legends include former Cameroonian goalkeeper Joseph Antonie-Bell, Egyptian superstar Hossam Hassan, Algerian talisman Raber Madjer, Nigerian midfield magician Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, Morocco’s Badou Zaki and coaches like Florent Ibenge of the DRC, Frenchman Herve Renard who is now in charge of Morocco and veteran Frenchman Claude le Roy who has worked extensively in African football.
“I will be discussing with as many stakeholders as there are around African football to come up with the best solution for the problems,” Ahmad said in April.
Southern African countries have struggled to qualify for the AFCON finals, which only feature 16 nations, and at the last showcase in Gabon earlier this year, only Zimbabwe made the cut. Only Zambia and South Africa have won the AFCON.
Namibia has only qualified in the 1998 and 2008 editions of the AFCON, while Mozambique featured in the tournament in 1986, 1996, 1998 and 2010.
Malawi has only qualified for two finals in 1984 and 2010 and in the last seven years, the Flames have been missing from the finals.
Angola fared better, qualifying for seven AFCON finals in 1996, 1998, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2010 and 2013 while Zimbabwe has been to the showcase three times in 2004, 2006 and their appearance this year.
On all occasions, the Warriors crashed out in the first round.
But that could change amid reports that the tournament could be expanded to 24 teams, which means an extra eight places being added to the football festival.
South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan is also a strong supporter of an broadened AFCON finals show arguing that the continent should also borrow a leaf from FIFA and UEFA.
Jordaan has questioned why a continent like Africa, which has more countries and more people compared to Europe, has a flagship football tournament that has fewer competing nations when compared to their European counterparts.
There are 44 countries in Europe, but the UEFA leaders decided, starting with Euro 2016 in France, to expand their flagship football tournament to 24 participating nations.
It opened the way for lightweights like Iceland and Wales to qualify for the finals and the Icelanders went on to write one of the fairy-tale stories of that tournament, eliminating England along the way, while Wales also had a very good tournament.
Africa has 52 members affiliated to CAF and a bigger population, estimated at around 1. 2 billion and growing at a rapid rate, with most of its people, unlike the Europeans who have a number of other games that appeal to them, being predominantly football-playing individuals.
However, the AFCON finals only features 16 teams and those who have been fighting for an overhaul of this system say this is unfair, with less than a quarter of the countries having a chance to make it, and there is need for change.
The African Football Symposium, which will herald the dawn of a new page in the development, is attended by CAF’s affiliates and national coaches including Claude Le Roy, Florent Ibenge, Herve Renard amongst others.
Club leaders such as Roger Ouegnin, president of Ivorian giants, ASEC Mimosas, and Irvin Khoza of South African club, Orlando Pirates also attended the two day symposium held in Skhirat on Tuesday and Wednesday.
FIFA was also represented including its President Gianni Infantino, and General Secretary, Fatma Samoura.
Top on the agenda of the symposium were the Africa Cup of Nations; Competition and Specifications; Interclub Competition; Football Development; Youth Football; International partnerships; Communication and Media; Marketing and TV; and Players’ role and perspectives.