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In 2020’s first lesson on the medium being just as important as the message, Gianni Infantino, proxy ruler of Caf, has seen his most recent proposal to amend the modalities of the Africa Cup of Nations met with a groundswell of disapproval.
It was at a Caf seminar over the weekend in Morocco that the 49-year-old pitched his latest tweak to the way football in Africa operates.
“The (Afcon) generates twenty times less than the Euros,” he said. “Having a CAN every two years, is that good at the commercial level? Has this developed the infrastructure? Think about spending it every four years.”
Objectively, nothing the Fifa president said was manifestly inaccurate.
The Afcon is no doubt the continent’s crown jewel, but it barely holds a candle in terms of profitability to its European cousin. Neither, for that matter, has a tournament held every two years particularly achieved the aim which it set out to at the first; infrastructure development via the Afcon, when it has come, has proven unsustainable in the long term.
However, the manner in which his “suggestion” was couched left a bitter taste, as does Infantino himself, who is increasingly considered a meddler.
In the first place, it reminded Africa’s footballing stakeholders of the uncomfortable truth: they will always and in all things be judged against Europe.
For all that there is an unwillingness to kowtow – former Caf president Issa Hayatou wore his stubbornness in this regard like a badge of honour upon which his chin frequently rested as he nodded off during meetings – or to be seen as pandering to the interests of Europe and their clubs, the reality on the ground is that it cannot be avoided.
Not while pretty much all of the continent’s top stars ply their trades in Europe. Without them, the cachet of the Afcon is severely diminished. Hayatou stood in the gap for decades, but by that consideration the change to a summer tournament always seemed like a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.
This, however, would be an even bigger alteration.
There is also the fact that Infantino has not exactly demonstrated an understanding of the African mindset, or even accounted for its peculiar challenges. His statement later on about divining “African solutions to African problems” was both ironic and, taken in tandem with a suggestion directly referenced with the European Championship, paradoxical—it is a distinctly unoriginal idea.
Those in favour of leaving things as is have two major arguments: first, in the minds of many, the economic viability and earning power of African football is apparently tied to a biennial Afcon, and it would be much harder to rake in sponsorships if the tournament became quadrennial; second, there is the sense that, having given an inch by acceding to a summer Afcon, Europe is coming to take a mile.
However nice Afrocentric sentiment is, it remains precisely that: sentiment. Going against the grain is not an end in itself, and should not be considered as such. It is merely a means by which allowances can be made for peculiarity and uniqueness of both circumstance and opportunity.
On its own merit, a quadrennial Afcon actually makes a lot more sense than those dismissing it out of hand are willing to admit.
Carlos Agostinho, Infantino
For one thing, two-year intervals allow scant room to actually savour the achievement of winning.
In the case of reigning champions Algeria, they will only get 18 months to bask in the glow of their triumph in Egypt last year before they have to put it up again. It lowers the stakes somewhat, both for victor and vanquished – it is easier to shrug off the disappointment of, say, a talented generation failing to fulfil their promise when they can just have another go two years down the line.
How many stabs did Ivory Coast, for instance, get at reaching that elusive milestone before finally winning in 2015?
Having only one go every four years makes it matter all the more.
There is also the fact that there are simply too many tournaments already. The African Nations Championship for homebased players is also biennial, and so every year there is a continental competition taking place. Add in the Caf Champions League and Confederation Cup, and then the regional tournaments (Wafu Cup, Cosafa Cup, etc), and the problem becomes obvious: Caf is spreading lean resources (and not exactly astronaut-level mental capacity) far too thinly across the board.
Using international tournaments to develop infrastructure worked as a sort of jump-start, but Africa has proven it is not any kind of long-term approach. It is also unnecessary: quality over quantity, with greater emphasis on the club competitions (where improvements are more likely to be maintained and monitored on a consistent basis) would arguably yield better results.
And that’s what really matters at the end of the day, isn’t it? Better results? Or will the sneering desire to stick it to Infantino take away from what is actually a quite germane discussion?
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