While Europe, Asia and South America hold their continental cup every four years, the Africa Cup of Nations is still contested every two years.
But does that mean it’s worth less?
Whether it is club managers ruing the loss of their stars, or players rejecting call-ups, the competition’s build-up is always tainted with drama.
True to form, the 29th edition of the event kicks off on Saturday in South Africa and one of the big stories has been the alleged displeasure of Spurs boss, Andre Villas Boas, over releasing Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor.
Such incidents paint a picture that Africa’s premier footballing competition is somehow lacking in value.
One way to counter the angst could be the adoption of a four-year cycle, like the other continental championships.
That would be the right way to go according to a man all-too-familiar with the competition.
“I do believe the Nations Cup should be held every four years,” says Efan Ekoku, who was part of the Nigerian squad that won the trophy in 1994.
He explained: “there is huge amount of football shown on TV at present and there is a real ‘fight’ by all to ensure their league or cup competition gets as much profile as possible.”
“The Nations Cup is fighting against heavyweights such as Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and of course the World Cup and Euros.”
Ekoku, now a commentator and respected pundit, believes that that the bi-annual cycle “devalues” the competition.
“There is less of an edge not only with players but also with fans, journalists and very importantly, the viewers on TV.”
Having played for two English Premier League sides, the former striker knows all about the disdain some have for the competition’s regular occurrence. He was playing for Norwich when Nigeria won the Cup, but when he signed for Wimbledon, they tried to put a clause in his contract that would limit his playing time for the Super Eagles.
The club verses country issue is magnified when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations as it takes place mid-season, and causes players to miss numerous club games. This year’s competition will feature 15 top flight players from the England, 14 from Portugal, 10 from Spain, six from Italy, and a whopping 35 from Ligue 1 in France.
Ekoku worries that, in the future, some Africans will miss out on joining top European teams if the two-year cycle continues.
“I believe it [the Africa Cup of Nations] makes African players a little less desirable to certain managers. This is probably more the case for smaller clubs as they have fewer resources and therefore smaller squads, and are always very concerend about losing players for up to four weeks.“
“I believe it makes African players a little less desirable to certain managers. This is probably more the case for smaller clubs as they have fewer resources and therefore smaller squads, and are always very concerned about losing players for up to four weeks.”
Nonetheless, the suggestion of switching to a four-year pattern might fall upon deaf years at the Confederation of African Football (CAF). Why reduce the cup’s frequency when the popularity of the tournament is so high?
Weighing up the costs
The 2012 tournament, which was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, was the most watched Africa Cup of Nations in history with an estimated 6.6bn cumulative television viewers.
But while these figures might be viewed with glee they actually underscore one of the competition’s major issues – crowd numbers. If everyone is watching TV, then who is in the stands?
Swathes of empty seats have become commonplace, and this can make the competition less financially lucrative for host countries. At the 2012 edition one game attracted less than 150 fans.
“From an economic perspective, the competition is a loss leader and ticket sales have missed their target,” claims Nairobi-based economist Aly Khan Satchu.
In addition, while Khan accepts that South Africa is well equipped to host the Cup following its “over-sized” investment for the 2010 World Cup, he is less sure about how other countries would cope.
“Calculations would be entirely different for a country who might have to make the investment from scratch,” he continued.
So instead of being an opportunity to raise funds to reinvest in the game, holding the competition every two years might actually be a financial burden for Africa. But despite this, maybe the necessity to hold it so often goes beyond money.
“The African Nations Cup is an important tournament, especially because so many of the continents’ top players play outside the continent” explains Khan.
This has huge symbolic value to the fans.
Furthermore, the unequal distribution of World Cup berths by FIFA makes the trophy even more important to the continent.
Unlike Europe, which receives 13 slots, Africa only gets five. As a result only 13 of the 52 countries affiliated to CAF have ever reached the World Cup finals.
So considering that the World Cup passes most of Africa by, reducing the frequency of the Africa Cup of Nations could damage the development of African football. It would leave teams with fewer chances to experience tournament football, pick up FIFA ranking points and win something for their people.
Any such move would make many of the players unhappy too.
“… Of course for us players in Europe, we would prefer for the competition to be every four years. But for many players in Africa, it would mean they will have fewer chances to impress.“
Jamal Alioui of French side FC Nantes has represented Morocco at three Africa Cups, and explains: “of course for us players in Europe, we would prefer for the competition to be every four years. But for many players in Africa, it would mean they will have fewer chances to impress.”
Nevertheless, this year marks a dramatic change for the competition as it is taking place just one year after the last.
From now on the event will take place on odd years like 2015 and 2017. This was done to make sure future editions do not fall on even years, which are reserved for the World Cup.
It could be a masterstroke as media outlets will have less strain on their resources, and could therefore expand their coverage. It might also give the matches some more edge because in the past, teams that also qualified for the World Cup may have been distracted.
So in some ways 2013 could be a new beginning. With the exception of the seven-time champions, Egypt, most of the big boys have qualified. In fact five of the teams that were at the 2010 World Cup will compete – including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria and hosts South Africa.
While the strong line-up may not convince everyone, a string of solid matches possibly will.
It seems CAF currently has no intention to adopt a four cycle. If it does, it should be for the benefit of Africa, and not external lobbyists.
But in the meantime, football fans will be hoping that the people of South Africa can whip up a vibrant atmosphere.
With the help of a few thousand vuvuzelas, that shouldn’t be a problem.