The Africa Cup of Nations is upon us again and this year feels like the microscope is prying even closer on this tournament. In the English Premier League, several coaches have voiced their opinions on losing key players to the in-season competition, while the idea of even hosting the competition in January has caused much debate.
Jack Wills, Simon Toye and Andrew Flint take a look at these issues, as well as putting forward their picks to win the tournament, as well as reminiscing over their iconic AFCON moments.
There has been a lot of debate in world football about whether clubs should stand in the way of their players leaving midway through the season to participate in the Africa Cup of Nations. What are your views on those clubs/managers who have an issue with it?
Jack Wills – I can completely see the frustration from managers, and appreciate that these clubs pay the wages, often exorbitant wages, for players… assets, to their business. That being said, the Africa Cup of Nations is no surprise, it has been going on for over half a century. If clubs want to sign African players then they know that every other January they may be called up to play for their country. In some ways it may be better that this plays out in January, particularly for larger teams with big squads; if they played this in the summer then you’d risk players not getting a proper rest. At least this way it alleviates that issue of summer fatigue.
Simon Toye – You have to treat it the same way that you treat any (competitive) international representation. If you wouldn’t stop your European or South American players leaving for duty then you don’t stop your African ones. They have the same rights to play for their countries as anyone else.
Andrew Flint – One thing that always strikes me over this debate is how it always flares up so close to the tournament without many clubs or managers seeming to have a plan in place to cope with it. It isn’t a surprise suddenly sprung upon them, and yet they are happy to cry foul within days of the tournament each time. Clubs will argue, fairly to an extent, that they pay the wages so should have the final say on the matter. Legally that is indisputable – but I challenge any player to accept a club manager standing in their way.
Should the Confederation of African Football consider shifting to a summer tournament, to fit in with the Copa America and European Championships?
Jack Wills – It is idealistic to suggest that this tournament be played in the summer to align with summer tournaments. It would certainly help out the clubs who lose their players, but with the exception of one or two countries such as South Africa, you simply cannot play summer football in Africa. Some games can be played at night when it is cooler, but there are too many group games to facilitate this without obstructing the tournament for the fans. Like it or not, for Africa to have a continental competition, a winter edition is necessary.
Simon Toye – Only if it benefits them. If they play in the winter for perfectly good reason then they should absolutely stick to it. Let’s be honest, by calling up these players “mid-season” they are generating exposure to their tournament if nothing else. It gets eyes on it that might otherwise not be. When the Euros are on, how many people watch the Copa America? How many fewer would watch the AFCON?
Andrew Flint – It is a compromise that might make a little sense from a scheduling point of view. Staging it in odd years to avoid clashes with Euros/World Cups would also help exposure perhaps, but more logically it ought to be even years so at least players will be off at the same time; that way FIFA could look into expanding international breaks for those years and cut one or two dates during the season.
What is your best memory of the Africa Cup of Nations?
Jack Wills – It has to be *that* penalty shoot out, minnows Zambia seeing out over Ivory Coast. Everyone loves an underdog story, you’d be hard pressed to name one player from that Zambian side, but they held strong against an Ivorian team that boasted the Toure brothers, Drogba and Gervinho in an astonishing penalty shoot out that seemed to go on for ever and ever. In reality it finished 8-7 in favour of the Zambian XI, but for those rooting for a plucky underdog win it felt like an eternity.
Simon Toye – I don’t have many, I’ll be honest. I do remember the exposure around Zambia winning the trophy in 2012. The final took place in Gabon very close to the plane crash site where Zambia lost the majority of their national team in 1993. My father used to work in Zambia too so that’s probably why it stuck in my mind.
Andrew Flint – 2012 is the tournament I remember following to some degree because of Zambia’s emotional and relatively unexpected win. Facing what was arguably Cote D’Ivoire’s golden generation and without the developed stars we now see like Patson Daka, Fashion Sakala, Enock Mwepu and co, it seemed like a major upset. It also raised awareness of the 1993 tragedy when the entire team perished in a plane crash not far from the Final venue (minus the legendary Kalusha Bwalya who had stayed behind). I remember enjoying the coverage as a lot of western journalists started bringing a wider audience to the competition, telling tales of how they journeyed through together en masse.
Who do you think is going to win AFCON 2022?
Jack Wills – I perhaps should have done more research before hand, my knowledge of these teams is somewhat lacking currently, though I have a feeling that Comoros, Mauritania and Cape Verde won’t be lifting the trophy in February. Cameroon have a shot as hosts, but I’m finding it hard to look beyond Egypt. They have a high pedigree in this competition and boast one of the best players in the world, and the best African player on the planet. This doesn’t guarantee success, but games can be won by a moment of magic, and Salah has that in spades.
Simon Toye – The usual suspects will be there or thereabouts – Egypt, Algeria, Senegal… Blind guess, Senegal.
Andrew Flint – I think it is hard to look past Algeria based on the wealth of experience in their squad. Riyad Mahrez of course stands out as the attacking leader, but I’m curious to see Baghdad Bounedjah from Xavi’s old club Al-Sadd. The spine is just so solid with Ismael Bennacer and Ramy Bensebaini and more veteran figures such as Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani to call on.