Africa United: The Importance of AFCON for Football
From January 9th to February 6th, 2022, five cities in Cameroon will host the 2021 African Cup of Nations, which had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been controversy around the competition in the news, firstly with the decision to go ahead with the event, despite the ongoing Omicron variant and a security threat in Cameroon. Further issues have risen following Emmanuel Dennis’ absence from the Nigeria side as he will instead stay and play for Watford as he was ‘threatened’; Senegal also accused the Premier League club of refusing to release Ismaili Sarr for the tournament. Due to the lack of media coverage, promotion of players into ACFON and hype surrounding the competition, Arsenal legend, Ian Wright, labelled the Premier League’s and the clubs’ attitudes towards AFCON as “embedded with racism”. This was reinforced by Crystal Palace manager, Patrick Viera, who tried to emphasise the value of AFCON.
This is what I will focus on in this blog. Despite the negativity surrounding this year’s tournament, AFCON holds significant sentimental, financial and cultural value for the nations, players, governing bodies and fans that are involved. I will assess the importance of this competition.
Back in 1957, three nations, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia competed in the inaugural African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Since then, it has been held every two years and is now comprised of 24 African nations competing to be the best footballing country on the continent. Egypt boasts the best record having won the competition seven times.
I will present the value of AFCON in two categories, the socially and economically beneficial impacts of the competition. There are problems dispersed across different areas of the continent of Africa; extreme poverty, high infant mortality rates, government corruption, violence and insurgency and poor healthcare affect many areas. AFCON can go some way in helping to tackle these problems through raising awareness and boosting economic investments, even in its current form and has the potential to be even more of a beacon of hope and unity against political, social and economic issues.
Socially and culturally, AFCON can play an important role in highlighting prevalent issues on the continent. For example, all the way back in its very first year in 1957, the tournament was supposed to involve a fourth team, South Africa. However, in a football and AFCON-led stand against the Apartheid regime in the country and their insistence on only white players being part of the team, South Africa were banned from competing. They would also be served a 10-year ban from the tournament in the eighties and were only allowed to enter once again after the Apartheid era was ended. AFCON has also created global attention and awareness for other problems that damage the continent such as civil wars, other dictatorships and insurgencies. Issues with animal poaching and threats to species are also brought into the spotlight of a world audience to help prevention as well as helping to tackle human poverty in African countries by promoting humanitarian charities throughout the tournament.
On a problematic, but beautiful continent, AFCON seems like the perfect model to celebrate the brilliance that Africa has to offer whilst helping the rest of the world to become aware of how they might be able to help the areas that need it. For the people of Africa, it is uniting, it brings them together for a month of celebration of the best footballing talent that the continent offers. The average attendance in the 2019 edition of AFCON was 18,136 per match and brought together football fans from across the continent, increasing the income from tourism, hospitality, entertainment and investments into the areas surrounding the venues. Whilst these attendance figures could be significantly higher, it is important to recognize the competition for its social benefits.
The tournament has considerable economic benefit too, especially in the host country. This is why the rights to host AFCON are so sought after and campaigned for. After Cameroon were unable to host the 2019 competition due to the threat of extremism, Egypt managed to generate an estimated revenue of $83million which was a similar figure to that generated by the host nations, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2015 and 2017 respectively. This allows the countries to invest into their infrastructure before and after the tournament, boosting their economies and improving the quality of life and financial situations of the population.
In 2016, the petrol company, Total, signed an eight-year primary sponsorship package deal estimated to be worth around $250million for the naming rights of the tournament. The company will support 10 Confederation of African Football (CAF) competitions, including the Women’s and Youth AFCON tournaments. They join the likes of secondary sponsors, Orange Mobile, Yamaha and Visa in supporting and boosting the revenue generated by AFCON. The tournament has also boasted previous sponsors such as Pepsi, Samsung and Adidas. Lucrative sponsorship deals can only be of benefit to African football, the CAF governing body and the nations involved in the tournament. The prize money in 2019 was higher than ever as a result; $4.5million for the winning nation, $2.5m for the runners-up, $2m for the other two semi-finalists and $1m for those who reached the quarters. The minimum sum of money that any of the 24 competing nations received for their participation in the tournament was $600,000. These are vital sources of revenue for the African nations that can be reinvested into the development and improvement of their football team and society.
There are underlying issues that present obstacles for AFCON to overcome in order to be seen as a flawless football competition. As a result of poorly educated and underpaid footballers and staff coupled with corrupt governments or even football governing bodies, AFCON has struggled to avoid controversy. Groups from the global North have been known to offer life-changing sums of money to vulnerable players in return for match-fixing commitments such as the allegations for the Mali vs Benin game in 2008. This also filters into campaigns for hosting the tournament being thwarted with accusations of bribery and foul play. Even when countries are given the rights to host the tournament this doesn’t always guarantee they will be able to follow through with it. Countries like Libya and Cameroon in recent times have been deemed unable to host AFCON safely despite being awarded the tournament due to civil war, political problems and security threats.
Despite all of this, one of the biggest concerns for AFCON is the respect that it is shown around the world. If we consider how much publicity and hype the Euros are given, it creates the impression that AFCON is not as important or respectable. This is further demonstrated through the reluctancy of certain European clubs in letting their players go mid-season in order to represent their countries in the competition. Some of the best players in Europe currently; Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi compete in AFCON.
The issues lie in the discouragement of playing in AFCON. It is a massive honour for these players to represent their home nation and their participation boosts the attractiveness of the tournament as a spectacle which would draw the eyes of the footballing world to some of the best players on the planet. On top of this, the greater the audience for AFCON, the greater the exposure for African football and their emerging talent. The dream of most young African footballers is to find a lucrative move to the European leagues which has the added benefit of bringing in revenue for African football from their transfers. However, if the competition is not given the respect and global recognition that it deserves then these rising stars are not given the exposure and opportunities that they deserve, despite what they might be capable of. The problem is exemplified in the volume of players at European clubs that sense the lack of respect and recognition that AFCON is given and so instead opt to represent different countries they are eligible for rather than their African roots. Premier League superstars such as N’Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger could have played for Sierra Leone and Mali respectively. This is further demonstrated by the Boateng brothers, Jerome and Kevin Prince, one of whom chose to play for their home of Ghana whilst the other found the opportunity of capitalizing on his German eligibility more appealing.
There are many aspects in which AFCON could be improved. It holds the potential to be an iconic biannual football event that celebrates not only the footballing talent of the African continent but the magnificence of the continent itself. In short, I believe that AFCON needs to be appropriately respected, governed and funded.
European clubs and the rest of the footballing world need to understand the importance and value of AFCON in providing the opportunity for players to represent their country as well as its role as a display of the football talent the continent has to offer. The tournament deserves greater media exposure and positive publicity in order to demonstrate its worth. Players should be celebrated and congratulated for playing in the tournament rather than held back or seen in a negative light by not committing to their club. Once the tournament is given the respect that it deserves, it will be able to flourish and fulfil the potential that it has as a celebration of African football.
Football is an integral part of African culture and AFCON is an opportunity to promote and improve it. The governing bodies across CAF have a duty to come together and ensure the tournament is given the support it deserves. If these football organisations are able to properly market the tournament, attract sponsors and spend the investments wisely, the potential of AFCON could be fulfilled. Furthermore, there is a need to create a safe and accessible environment at the events so that fans and sports tourism can thrive and bring further benefits to the host country. With players as world-class as Mohamed Salah playing in the tournament, stadiums should be sold out and bringing fans to support their countries should be a priority of CAF. This can be done by sensibly pricing tickets and travel arrangements to lower the obstacles that are posed to fans.
There also needs to be a deliberate and sustained effort to protect the integrity of the competition, preventing the influence of corruption in any form, from bribery to match-fixing. It could be seen as a duty for FIFA to intervene here by creating projects and providing sufficient funds for AFCON to support the education and fair treatment of players in African nations to discourage and prevent integrity issues. This will increase the global respect for the tournament and the extent to which it is appreciated across the footballing world. If these issues are resolved and a strategy is put into place that will market and advertise the competition sufficiently, then I have no doubt that AFCON will fulfill its limitless potential as a celebration of the continent that has produced some of the best footballing talent seen in Europe in recent years. It is time to ensure that the African players and their countries are given the respect that they deserve.