Will CAF finally change Nations Cup timing?


Symposiums rarely grab our attention in African football, but between Tuesday and Wednesday there is a unique one happening in Rabat, Morocco that the president of CAF says "will determine the future of our game".

It is a grand declaration from Ahmad Ahmad, but also one that provides the context for just how significant the gathering is of African football executives, FIFA officials - including its president Gianni Infantino - African coaching luminaries, heavyweights like Herve Renard and Claude Le Roy, and some of the biggest names to play the game on the continent including Abedi Pele, Kalusha Bwalya and Jay Jay Okocha.

"Never before has something like this been organised in Africa," Ahmad told the delegates at the opening ceremony. "We are here for a historic chapter and to effect great changes. These are decisions that will determine the future of our game. My ambition is to effect profound transformation of CAF and I'm personally determined to see it through with all the members."

The workshops at the symposium also read like a diagnosis of everything that's wrong with African football at the moment.

There will be conversations around the inter-club competitions and the distances clubs travel to play them, football development on the continent, youth football, international partnerships, communication and media, marketing, and the hugely controversial issue of television and its relationship with football on the continent.

But none of this matters more than the African Nations Cup. "That is the first thing to talk about, we can't get away from it," Ahmad declared.

And the conversations will inevitably centre around three key areas:

(1) Whether to review the frequency of the tournament from every two years to a competition that takes place every four;

(2) Whether to change its place on the calendar;

(3) Discussions around expanding the competition from 16 teams to 24

The agenda is curious simply because apart from the timing of the competition in January, there is not much else wrong with the Nations Cup. The frequency is fine, the number of teams just about perfect; enough to allow the big names and others to compete on a fair scale over what is always an amazing period.

The January schedule needs to change though. It is understandable that no-one involved in football on the continent wants to bow to the relentless and self-seeking chorus of complaints from Europe about the January schedule. It felt like a dictation in the past. It no longer is.

Now the January timing is hurting the very actors CAF and African football needs for the competition to thrive - the players - which is why it must change.

The Nations Cup has become an amazing competition because of the players. In recent years, its popularity and appeal to broadcasters - and by extension it's commercial value - has escalated because of the many high-profile players who have carved solid reputations for themselves at club level. Sticking to the January schedule is hurting them, not standing up to clubs.

As for changing the schedule to every four years, please simply don't do it. The Nations Cup remains the one football product from the continent with the appeal to stand up to anything else the world provides.

For a continent forced to play second fiddle to everything else at club level, there is no point limiting the frequency of the one product everyone is in love with.

Europe can choose to have their Championship every four years because they have the appeal of the Champions League and individual leagues that consumes the world and rakes in significant venue.

For Africa, it is not the same.

And as the craze for increasing the size of tournaments around the world grows, you have to hope too that CAF does not fall for it. Sixteen teams has worked well for the Afcon. It assembles a fairly decent mix of heavyweights and not-so-regulars and countries who make their breakthrough at that level.

For a continent of 54 counties, a tournament with almost half that number present will be a dilution.

Then there is the compelling case of what 24 countries will mean for the organisation and logistics of the event. The Nations Cup is already suffering from hosts who are rarely ready, inadequate hotel rooms and pitches that takes away from quality. Why add up to the numbers and rack up the problem?

Some have suggested co-hosting as a solution. On a continent where travelling from Accra to London, Paris or Lisbon is less complicated than travelling to Banjul, co-hosting is never a solution.

So there are problems with the Nations Cup - the January schedule chief among them - but apart from that CAF should not fix what is not broken.