Heart of Football

AFCON Interview EXCLUSIVE with Uri Levy

Arguably one of the most misunderstood and disrespected international tournaments, the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off amidst the all-too predictable swirl of sneers and misconceptions. To help us dissect the meaning and nuances of Africa’s grandest stage we spoke to Uri Levy, founder of Babagol – the legendary football content Mecca – and correspondent for Israel-based TV channel i24News.

Uri is a vastly experienced multi-lingual journalist who has covered numerous football tournaments on the ground, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. His vision of football mirrors Heart of Football’s perfectly, and given the depth of his knowledge, vision and passion there could be no better person to guide us through what makes AFCON special.

You have reported on various international tournaments for Babagol and i24News among others; what makes AFCON special? 

I think AFCON is such a special tournament because it combines so many different styles and stories of football. This continent is so huge and so diverse in matters of football that it makes every AFCON and makes each tournament so interesting. Although each tournament is a slow burner, and the group stages are a little bit murky, from the quarter-finals onwards this tournament always produces fantastic moments.

Africa has this football that doesn’t really exist in Europe, South America or in Asia; it’s this sense of barefoot football that you can see, even though all the top stars are coming from Europe. Maybe a third of all the players were born and raised in Europe; still, when these players come to represent teams like Mali, Algeria, Malawi, Ethiopia, Egypt, or Morocco, it creates such a colourful scenario of football, so fascinating and diverse. The fact that the continent enjoys the toughest World Cup qualifiers – 50 national teams fighting for just five places – means AFCON gives these national teams the chance to shine on a continental level, but also rise to prominence on a global level. Football legends start in Africa, and go out to the wise world.

Who do you see as the standout teams and players for this tournament, and potential breakthrough performers?

Obviously when we speak about the favourites to win it, we think of Algeria, the reigning champions who won back in Egypt in 2019; Senegal, who reached the final in that tournament, and are maybe the biggest favourites in this tournament. These two draw our attention towards two of the biggest stars in Sadio Mané and Riyad Mahrez, obviously Mohamed Salah with Egypt, who although is a little behind with his national team is still a prominent player. These are players who everyone knows from watching European football.

AFCON is a little bit different. When we see a list of the MVPs from the last 10 years, in Angola in 2010, when Egypt won for the third time in a row, Ahmed Hassan was the MVP. Then in 2012, Christopher Katongo from Zambia surprisingly won it. In 2013 when Nigeria won their last time, Jonathan Pitroipa from Burkina Faso was excellent when he won it, then Christian Atsu from Ghana won it in 2015 even though Cote D’Ivoire won it for the second time. In 2017 Christian Bassogog was supposed to go and shine in Europe but eventually spent his whole career in China after winning the MVP award. In the last one it was Ismael Bennacer of Algeria, who later moved on to AC Milan.

So the MVP you see will not necessarily be one of the top stars of the national team like Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah or Riyad Mahrez. AFCON is the platform for players from not the top row of European football; for many African players they take the chance with both hands, and show what they can do. I think the big favourite for this tournament to shine will be Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, a 17-year-old guy from Ghana, who is already connected with Sporting Club and will sign when he is 18. He’s an extremely talented kid. Also Hannibal Mejbri of Manchester United; he was excellent in the Arab Cup for Tunisia who reached the final, and he played every game and was fantastic.

Manchester United teenager Hannibal Mejbri (left) could be one to watch in AFCON 2021

AFCON is also a platform for young players. If you want to see the next stars of the Premier League, of Ligue Un in France, even the next stars of the Bundesliga, switch on the tv and watch AFCON – you’ll see them right there in front of you.

So I think Algeria, Senegal, maybe Cameroon can do something. The hosts will receive tremendous support from the people there, and of course they’re enjoying a great moment with Samuel Eto’o as the new president of FECAFOOT (the Cameroonian FA). These are my top three favourites. Morocco can maybe do something; if Egypt and Mohamed Salah go all the way it will, for me, be highly surprising.

The same old line gets trotted out by European-based managers about the timing of the tournament being inconvenient – can you explain the history of the January schedule, and why it should be respected?

It’s one of the most heated discussions in world football in the past year. Suddenly no-one knew AFCON was played in January, but people are often not aware AFCON has been played since 1957; the Euros started in 1960, so AFCON is more of a veteran competition than the Euros.

Secondly, until the early 2000s, AFCON was played in March/April, and European clubs started saying “Oh come on, African players are leaving during the most important time of the season!” The African Football Confederation (CAF) then said okay, there is a case there, so we need to stage it at a better date. Summer across the continent is absolutely heated. You know, I’ve been the AFCON in Egypt in 2019 in the summer – the first one, and only one, to be played in the summer – and I can assure you, Tunisia against Madagascar in 39°C is not the way you want to hold a continental tournament, a respectable tournament, that’s for sure.

So basically the winter will be the best time for the whole continent. In Cameroon in the summer you have rain storms, flooding; if you do it now, it’s about 25-30°C and pretty dry, so the weather is excellent for football – or bearable for football. 

Since it’s been played during January or February during the past 20 years after European clubs asked, after one time when CAF met them halfway and held the tournament in the summer; it’s like a kid when you give them a treat or a chocolate or something, without him doing anything positive, and then he comes again for the same treat and you say “No, I don’t have it.” He then storms around, screaming and stuff. So this is what the discussion is all about.

I thought Jurgen Klopp’s quote saying AFCON is a “little tournament” was a disgraceful one, whatever his goals are in saying this. I think Aliou Cissé the Senegal manager really answered him well, saying it was something arrogant. I think Patrick Vieira answered him well, and also Ian Wright, who said that we have to show respect for the Africa Cup of Nations the same way we show respect for the Euros. You know, we have the Euros in 10, 11 countries, with flights and fans in Hungary, full stadiums. During a pandemic, Scotland’s players tested positive and then returned for the last game of the group stage; now everyone is crying about winter, about Covid, when we are talking about a tournament in one country that managed to build quite a strict Covid testing platform for journalists and fans. 

Senegal manager Aliou Cissé had some choice words for Jurgen Klopp after the Liverpool manager appeared to belittle the Africa Cup of Nations

The criticism for me is simply unjustified; it’s wrong, it’s greedy. It shows something about the way people look on this topic. This is simply not nice; you simply enjoy players like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez during the whole season. They win titles for you; they make the name of your club bigger; they inspire your fans; they do things for the community back. Respect them, and respect people from the countries they are coming from, and let them enjoy them once in two years. It’s simply right, and the way it should be.

AFCON is one of the cornerstones of world football, and I think it is a beautiful tournament. Specifically this tournament in Cameroon. There are so many players born and raised in Europe as I said before; all in all, 174 players, which makes over seven players on average in each squad that were born in Europe, so AFCON is also about Europe, about people living in Europe, for African or part-African people living in Europe. 

So I think this whole discussion is a disgrace, and a humiliation for people who enjoy African football as well but cannot support or share some decent respect for African football.

Was the expansion of AFCON to 24 teams a positive move? What else do you think could be done to elevate the tournament?

I think it’s a good question to ask because we’ve seen most continental competitions expanding to at least 24 teams, like the Euros, the Asian Cup, and now also the AFCON. In CONCACAF it’s technically possible but I’m not sure they want it because the gaps in levels are so high; maybe a united tournament of the whole Americas would be a good call for this. The main reason to do this for the confederations is to make profits and revenues from their national teams’ football through tournaments, and Africa is no different.

Keeping it every two years and expanding the number of participants definitely increases the amount of income they draw from the tournament. What they draw is, hopefully, dripping down to the national federations themselves, to open more nations in Africa to a high quality of competition. It makes the tournament a slow starter in the group stage, which is maybe less interesting for the neutral viewer, but in the long run I do believe it will develop more and more African national teams to compete at a higher level. 

It has down sides, but it also has upsides. For now it’s a good solution. With the pace and the way in which the football world is changing – we know we’re going to have a 48-team World Cup, and rumours about it every two years – 24 teams in the AFCON is the least of the problems for football, and I think if it gives a chance for Gambia, or Comoros, to play serious football for the first time, I’m taking it you know?

Myself growing up in a country that enjoyed a World Cup only once and never qualifying for a Euros – once we won the Asian Cup when we were still part of the AFC – I know how bad it can be to not succeed for years in qualifying for a tournament finals, it’s a great feeling, something the nation is really craving for. For African nations it is also a big thing, so I must say I know there are disadvantages, but I am for this model for sure.

What is your fondest memory of previous AFCON tournaments?

My fondest memories from an AFCON are a bit varied you know; I have a few memories to choose from. My first memory of an AFCON is turning on Eurosport and watching the semi-finals, and final between Nigeria and Senegal, of AFCON 2002. In fact I watched the whole tournament; it was like a different world. I was so excited, just so pumped with the world of African football; the technical skills of players, the extreme physicality and abilities that the players had, all got me hyped. 

Another important moment for me was the tournament I covered in Egypt two and a half years ago. I saw Madagascar in their first ever tournament reaching the quarter-finals where they lost to Tunisia, and I was there in the stands with the fans, and it was something out of this world. People were crying, and singing, and even though they went home they had such an inspiring campaign. The players came and celebrated with the fans all together; everyone was crying with pride and happiness from football – it was amazing. Obviously, covering Algeria’s win in the semi-final with Riyad Mahrez’s goal in the 94th minute against Nigeria from a free kick in the Cairo International Stadium was up there. The whole week after when 50,000 Algerians arrived in Cairo by boat, in airplanes, helicopters, buses, hitch-hiking; it was fantastic. 

Then you saw the power of African football; this was when I understood how big the tournament is. Watching Algeria winning 29 years after the last time they did it, it simply felt like being part of history. This Algeria team is fantastic. The manager Djamel Belmadi, the fans were out of this world. For me, these were the top AFCON moments, but I hope to gain more moments in this tournament ahead. I hope to be in Cameroon, but with Covid you can’t plan far ahead. 

Heart of Football would like to thank Uri for his very generous time spent talking to us about all things AFCON. You can follow him of Twitter here.

Babagol is a well-respected website dedicated to Keeping Football Real, with a particular focus on Asian, African and Latin American football.

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