Africa Cup Of Nations: Time for a radical change?
The 2013 edition of the Africa Cup Of Nations (AFCON), held in South Africa ended with Nigeria crowned champions after a deserved, 1 – 0 victory over Burkina Faso. The one-nil scoreline and the pulsating, singing, slogan-chanting crowd at the final game served to mask a multitude of sporting sins and the major failing of this and recent editions of this once-glorious tournament. The final aside, where were the crowds? Were they home watching on TV or could they not be bothered to go? Or, was it the more likely case that they simply could not afford to?
Basketball’s NBA, that bastion of the professional game in the USA, now has a regular season game in Europe. This came about after years of friendly, pre-season matches featuring teams from America warming up for the ‘real thing’ by taking on each other in front of their vast Europe-based fan base. The other great ‘American’ league, the National Football League now also has at least one regular season match taking place in Europe. Isn’t it time Africa’s most popular sport started thinking along these lines?
Already, we have a situation where many African teams play their friendly, pre-tournament matches in Europe. Often, to bigger crowds than we have seen at recent AFCON tournaments.
The argument for shifting, not just the odd match but the whole tournament to Europe (or even America) is pretty persuasive. Don’t laugh about the latter notion; the first time ever football’s World Cup made a profit was when it was held in the USA in 1994. Up to that point, the tournaments had enthralled the world but almost bankrupted host countries and left many with ‘white elephant’ football stadiums. The Americans showed the ‘world game’ how to market itself better and make endorsement deals with all types of multinational companies. It is no coincidence that following that tournament, many of Europe’s great football clubs hired and continue to hire Americans as their marketing managers.
The Economic case
The same thing that has depleted Africa of many of its best and brightest, may very well be the thing that saves the game. Many Africans fled their continent for economic reasons. Having settled outside the continent, many not only live better lives economically but, as statistics tell us, keep many an African country on the go by sending remittances home.
The nostalgia for home is evident when teams from Africa face each other in friendlies in Europe playing to much bigger crowds than we see in most of the games played in recent AFCON tournaments.
The better wages they earn mean they can fill stadia to ‘watch their home teams playing away from home’. For most, the cost of tickets to a tournament would hardly break the bank. Contrast this with the cavernous, soulless atmosphere at many matches over the last few years once the home team has been eliminated. The most recent AFCON tournament was no exception; the only games that came close to playing host to a full stadium were those where the host nation featured. Once they had been knocked out of the competition, they took their crowd with them.
Time to ‘think outside the continent’?
Given the poor attendances at recent tournaments, is it not time to ‘think the unthinkable’ and play the next tournament outside the continent of Africa? Or, at least, a game or two outside Africa? The comparatively wealthy African Diaspora can afford to go to matches. At least two European countries would suggest themselves as obvious candidates to host the tournament: France and England. Between them, these two countries not only play host to significantly large and relatively well-off African Diaspora communities, they also have leagues that feature large numbers of players from Africa or of African descent. For many of these players, it may also solve a few problems they have with their club sides. It has become almost de rigeur to hear tales of players either squabbling with their club coaches over going to the tournament, failing to come back on time when the tournament has finished or both!
Imagine a match featuring Ghana vs Nigeria played at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium or Mali playing Ivory Coast at Paris Saint-Germain’s Parc De Princes. I’d bet good money you’d pull a larger crowd than these same matches taking place in South Africa!
So, put your prejudice and shock aside and ask yourself: how much longer can the tournament survive playing to near-empty stadia? These empty stadia can hardly fill the sponsors with glee.
Africa’s ruling football body, CAF needs to make this bold decision now or they will only be remembered as the ones who shepherded the continent’s favourite tournament to its grave.
Ade Daramy, Editor