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Alasdair Howorth Interview: AFCON 2021, On The Whistle, Attitudes to Africa

While we have dabbled in African football before this AFCON 2021 tournament, we cannot claim to have a deep, storied following of football on the continent, so we wanted to learn more. Who better, then, than Alasdair Howorth: podcaster, associate producer and journalist with On The Whistle, Kenyan-born and raised African football fanatic, and the perfect guide to lead us into the mad world of Africa Cup of Nations, and all that surrounds it?

Watch the full interview here

Alasdair, thank you for making the time for us today. At Heart of Football, we’ve really tried to get into the Africa Cup of Nations, and we couldn’t miss all of the content you’ve been putting out. First and foremost, I want to start with how did you get into African football? Why African football – what connections do you have? How has it developed for you?

Alasdair Howorth: Yeah, so… I’m from Africa; I was born and raised in Kenya. I grew up there, and lived there till I came to university in the UK, where I’ve been ever since. That’s where my connection has come from. I’ve always been super-passionate about sports, particularly football – that’s what I grew up playing in Kenya. Then I wanted to do sports journalism. I was working previously in a different field, but then I decided to finish that and do something I’m a lot more passionate about. Sports journalism covering African football is a meeting of all the worlds I’m passionate about.

I love football. I love niche football, I love African football, and I love Africa, so it’s a chance for me to try and represent the continent, and talk about it in hopefully mainly positive ways. That’s why I decided to cover it from a more professional basis as well. It’s just in such a saturated market; we were talking earlier about finding it difficult to get work in sports journalism, particularly in the UK. But there isn’t perhaps as much coverage as there should be on African football, so it’s kind of fun to be covering what, particularly here in Europe, would be considered more of a niche, so I’ve really enjoyed that.

It’s funny, it’s interesting you mention that, because one of our guys, Jack, wrote an article about the fairly poor – to put it kindly – coverage that Sky Sports have put out of the tournament, despite buying the rights to cover all the games; it’s been quite hard to find the games, and they started off with only one commentator for some games, then they hurriedly brought in a second. Can you tell us what your experience has been of coverage from broadcasters or mainstream media of the tournament?

Yeah, so actually when we found out Sky was going to be covering it, there were a lot of people excited about it, because generally Africa Cup of Nations, in Europe particularly, gets covered by things like Eurosport who don’t always show all the games, the coverage isn’t amazing. And so when we were waiting to find out who would be the one broadcasting it, and we found out Sky would be doing it, and then the BBC would also be doing the last part from the quarter-finals on, we were actually really excited, because we were kind of like “this is fantastic, you know, there’s going to be a real upping of the quality, and as well as the broadcasting, so you know a lot more people would be able to watch it in the UK.

In the UK there are massive diasporas, massive footballing communities, so I think it’s a tournament that should be really well broadcast here in the UK. But then so essentially what happened, I think, was that Sky decided that rather than use any of their own production, they were just going to kind of use the CAF feed – CAF, the Confederation of African Football. So they produce their own feed. They do it for all their games – World Cup qualifiers, CAF Champions League, CAF Confederations Cup, AFCON qualifiers – and it’s this same group of five or six guys who do every single commentary, usually from one or two camera angles. It’s not super in-depth.

And so, as soon as it – well, for those of us who’ve kept up with particularly the most recent World Cup qualifiers, as soon as we heard the commentary, we immediately knew this wasn’t actually Sky; this is just Sky slapping their adverts on the world feed. And that’s why you get all these crazy things. Like we saw them showing the line-ups for certain teams and put them all out of position, with a 5-5-0 formation or whatever…

So that was the thing – it was really disappointing because essentially Sky just bought the rights, and didn’t do anything with it. Fortunately, so many people complained, that Sky was kind of forced to do their own, and bring in their own commentary team. So that was really good, because it really uplifted it, by having the quality of Sky’s commentators, but also having two. Doing single commentary I have so much sympathy, because it’s such a difficult job.

I think that’s where they improved it. It’s still really frustrating for us because there’s so much to be done here, you know… I would be willing to go on and do pre-match, half-time, post-match, and you’d find thousands of people in London who would be happy to do that and have the expertise. I think that’s what was really frustrating for us. Even though we have the feed in the UK, I still have friends who were looking for dodgy streams of the broadcasters in South Africa or wherever else, because they want actual punditry. I was talking to someone who said they were getting the German feed, and they were like: “Well, I didn’t even understand the German feed, but it had pundits, they had commentary teams, they were giving it the full thing, so it was much more enjoyable.

So I think it’s been really disappointing for us; why is there no analysis, where is there no punditry. Particularly somewhere like London, in the UK; you have SO many foreign professionals who played on the continent, you have so many journalists and experts, so it is frustrating. So hopefully, they heard about us complaining about them using the world feed and that commentary team, so hopefully they’ll start upping it so maybe by next time, by next AFCON they’ll actually be giving it – from our perspective – the respect that it’s due.

I sincerely hope so. One of the reasons why we were so interested to start learning about AFCON was because we HAD to learn about it. That kind of proves the point – the appetite is there, definitely. I 100% agree with you. It’s very interesting to hear that there was some reaction to the outpouring. That’s a positive sign, I guess, at least.

Alasdair, I wanted to ask you about the work you’re doing with On The Whistle; were you there from the beginning? How was your journey with the platform, what does it do, and where do you see it going from here?

On The Whistle is a podcast that I associate produce. It’s essentially a podcast that covers all things African football, quite long-form. We’ve done interviews, we’ve done stuff with bigger European-based football players, like Kanu, we talked to Xabi Alonso, and kind of bigger players, but our real passion is African football, so we talk to a lot of managers and owners of football clubs in Africa – mainly South Africa.

I wasn’t there when it started; it was started by a couple of guys from South Africa – Zayn Nabbi, who works at CNN, and another guy, Courtney Freese, who used to play professionally in South Africa, and they’ve kind of expanded the team. So I joined… it would be six or seven months ago. We’ve been expanding it ever since; we have a couple of other guys who join in – a guy called Francis Nkwain who’s based in Cameroon, he’s a Cameroonian expert, and another guy, our producer who’s an Egyptian football expert. So we’ve been expanding it… so it’s a podcast that’s passionate about bringing, particularly stories. It’s storytelling, trying to tell the story of African football from the lens of Africans as well, not from the outside.

So we’ve been doing that for… I think we’re into our third year, though I’ve only been with it for six months and we’ve done various things partnering with other organizations to to produce it and things like that but we’re we’re still in the process of expanding. We’re still quite a small kind of podcast in terms of reach, but we’re we’re kind of making inroads and you know we’ve really enjoyed covering AFCON perhaps a bit more than we would have normally because you know for us it’s not our day job or anything, so it’s all of us just doing this as our kind of passion outside of our day jobs.

I think the the niche market is fascinating. It’s brilliant to hear that, and especially that you’ve got a good team to base around it. So what what do you hope to achieve with On The Whistle moving forward? Do you want to focus more on, a bit more on African club football perhaps, or is it just carry on going as you are? Do you have any big plans in the near future?

We do do stuff quite a lot with African club football; that’s particularly what I’m passionate about, is kind of focusing on football that’s based on the continent. So you know last year we we interviewed a couple of times Pitso Mosimane, manager of Al Ahly, which is kind of the biggest club in Africa, the most successful club in Africa. They won the last two CAF Champions Leagues. So we really enjoy focusing on that kind of side of things, particularly with him because he has a lot of connections with people from the On The Whistle team from because he’s South Africa originally. He used to work from Mamelodi Sundowns – the most successful team in South Africa at the moment, if not historically.

That is our passion, it’s telling the stories of stuff that’s going on on the continent so there’s a lot of club football. We also try and do stuff covering a lot of the women’s side of things. So there’s a couple podcasts where I talk about the CAF Women’s Champions League because that was hosted for the first time in November I think, or December, so that was really exciting to cover and look at, as well as interviewing. We’ve interviewed the coach of the South African women’s team and a few others. So it’s trying to cover as much content from Africa.

We’re trying to expand. Obviously because of Zayn and Courtney, they’re from South Africa, that’s where a lot of our connections have been, so we’ve done a lot of really southern African stuff. Some of the people at the AFCON… We’ve interviewed people from Malawi and Zimbabwe multiple times, so we’re trying to expand. That’s partially why I’ve been brought in to kind of bring a bit more East African focus so that’s where we’re going we’re trying to focus, to broaden our horizons to other parts of African football rather than where the roots are in southern Africa.

It’s genuinely astonishing to find a platform that really does cover that breadth of African football. The limited exposure I personally have had, and I think probably a lot of others as well, is from computer games; Football Manager, Championship Manager, where basically 90% of my knowledge came from. I would look for African leagues and to my knowledge it certainly always used to be and possibly still is, I believe, only the South African league is one where you can you can find out about it. I would love to see more of that to help engage more people.

Okay, Alasdair, let’s focus more on the the tournament itself then at the moment. We spoke to Uri Levy, an Israeli journalist who’s covering AFCON. Have you come across…?

Yeah, yeah! Uri is great he really knows his stuff.

Oh he’s a fantastic guy. We asked him to give us just his preview, his rundown of what to expect. One of the things he highlighted was how the really big name stars in the European context tend not to always star in AFCON. He gave the example of the players of the tournament for the last 10 years or so, and the list of names is not one that a lot of people in European football would be familiar with. Have you been surprised? Or did you expect that the likes of Mahrez, Mane and Salah have not quite dominated for tournament like European-based fans might expect them to?

I think I totally agree with Uri. Particularly coming from the outside, there’s always an assumption: these guys play in the best leagues in the world and they’re therefore going to dominate in the ways which they do you know in the Premier League or LaLiga or wherever. And the reality is it’s such a different tournament, you know? You’re playing on very different fields, it’s a very different pace of game, it’s not quite the same kind of speed which you get in European football particularly English and German football. So the pitches play into the style of football, it’s also much more physical as a style of football, and so you see players that don’t try.

I think one, perhaps the biggest one this tournament, was a lot of people who are fans of the Premier League are saying: “Oh we can’t wait, we’re so excited to see Said Benrahma play for Algeria… he hasn’t played that much, why has he not played that much? He’s been so unbelievable for Brentford and for West Ham.” Benrahma’s been all right for Algeria, but it’s because he’s sitting behind Youcef Belaili who people in the UK particularly really have never heard of. He plays in Qatar, he used to play in North Africa, he played in France for just a little bit but then was banned. Why would he be the one to thrive? But if you’ve watched Algeria over the last few years, you know even with Riyad Mahrez in the side Belaili has probably been their best player. He’s been an unbelievable talent, he’s been superb. If you talk to Algerian journalists they’ll say: “Yeah, Mahrez has been excellent, but Belaili’s probably been the best player.”

A lot of these teams base their teams around the superstars, and oftentimes they do so to their own demise. That’s been a big problem for Egypt over the last few years, that they have arguably the best player in the world right now in Mohamed Salah, but because they try to play through him so much, they try to play exclusively through him, it means suddenly you’re killing the talents that are also in this Egyptian side; Omar Marmoush, and Mostafa Mohamed, Mohamed Sherif. These guys are all really, really good players in their own right, but because this team is kind of built off this pressure to play through Mohamed Salah – and in some ways you can understand that, because he’s one of the best players in the world – but it’s really been to their detriment.

So yeah, absolutely, the AFCON is a tournament where you expect the unexpected, but one of the things you always expect is at least some of the European big guys to really struggle and we’ve seen that. Mahrez had a really poor tournament, Sadio Mane has really struggled, Mohamed Salah has been all right but hasn’t really kicked on. The stars have not been the ones which we would expect.

I’ll be honest I’ve been guilty of that exact assumption – “They play so well in the Premier League, they’ll stroll through AFCON”you mention.

Oh we all have!

I’m pleased I’m slowly opening my eyes to this.

We could be here all day going through the utter insanity of things that have gone on this tournament, so if you could distil it into your three personal highlights for whichever reason you choose, what has stood out for you so far?

That’s a very good question… Well I think you know one of the big things coming into this tournament that everyone needed to be aware of – and I don’t think people, particularly from the UK, were really clued into was how effective the preparation for the tournament was; you especially had a lot of Covid outbreaks for a lot of these teams, but the big thing was clubs in Europe releasing players so late. Pressure from the European Club Association meant that they only released players, I think, on the third of January, just six days before the tournament started. Then in the end a lot of those players are the ones who brought Covid to the squads.

So I think people were really kind of disheartened when the tournament started so slowly, you know. I think with the first round of match we had like nine 1-0s and a couple of 0-0s, and only the first game actually had more than one goal. But that’s exactly what we should have expected because you’re essentially throwing in 24 teams into a tournament, most of them haven’t even played a warm-up friendly. That’s to think of, say, England going into a World Cup having not even played a single friendly would be outrageous, to expect us to kind of do well. It’s been like that, so I think that’s been one.

I think the other thing I’ve really enjoyed about this tournament is it’s been the tournament of the underdogs. We’ve seen some huge teams really struggle; Algeria, Egypt have been really poor, Ghana were awful, and Nigeria, despite having a brilliant start, got knocked out on Sunday. And it’s really been the ones who have come in kind of really, really well prepared that have done the best. I think that’s something that particularly for us looking from the outside it’s just a surprise. How are Comoros getting through? How are Gambia getting through? How are Malawi getting through? It’s crazy, particularly some teams like say, for instance, Malawi; you have the bulk of their players play locally or in South Africa, the Malawian league hasn’t even run over the last couple years for long periods of time because of Covid. But it’s because these are the teams that are really, really well prepared.

I love looking at Comoros as an example. This is a team that wasn’t even recognized by FIFA until 2005, and I think they won their first competitive match in 2016, but the reason they’re here is because I think it was in 2014 their coach Amir Abdou took over, they rapidly professionalized everything, they built a squad, they targeted bringing in their diaspora of players in France, and I think if you go on Wikipedia and you look up Comoros and you look who are their 10 most capped players – they’re all players who are in the Comoros squad here at the AFCON. I just think that’s amazing, and it’s such a testament to them; a team full of French lower-league players are suddenly beating Ghana, getting through to the knockout stages etc but it’s because they’re the teams that are really, really well organized. I think that’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed watching. The teams that have put in the work over the last few years really thrive on teams that haven’t; your Ghanas, your Nigerias have really really struggled.

I’m trying to think of a third thing that’s really defined it for me… I think the third thing that I’ve really enjoyed is the quality of goalkeeping. Traditionally, goalkeeping in Africa has been one of the more disregarded things. African goalkeepers have always been perceived to be quite far behind the rest of the world in terms of their quality but also they’re seen as quite chaotic, and we’ve seen this tournament that actually the standard of goalkeeping has been magnificent – and ironically not from the keepers we expect. So going into the tournament, goalkeepers-wise we’d be focusing on Edouard Mendy obviously, and Andre Onana coming back; two of the best goalkeepers in the world. Onana has actually struggled this tournament and you can see he’s really rusty, which makes sense – he hasn’t played in like a year.

But it’s been the Mohamed Kamaras of Sierra Leone, these guys; you know, the Ben Boinas of Comoros; these are the guys who’ve stepped up and have been brilliant and I think that’s why I really enjoyed this tournament is seeing goalkeepers thriving – and in really different ways. I mean Mohamed Kamara has shown… I’ve never seen such a Neuer-like goalkeeper, he’s just constantly out of his box, and it looks really chaotic, but he’s judged everything perfectly. He always gets the ball, he hasn’t got it wrong yet.

It’s a shame he’s not still in this tournament because you know I would love to keep watching him but yeah, I think that’s been another thing I’ve really enjoyed; the performance of goalkeepers, particularly from the smaller nations. Even I look at Ethiopia; their goalkeeper Shanko wasn’t the best in nets and Ethiopia have traditionally struggled in goalkeepers, particularly over the last years, but his distribution was elite, you know, incredible 60-yard balls pinging – stuff you would expect from your Edersons, your Allisons, you know, top top level. You know, modern European style goalkeepers. Players based out of Ethiopia are playing the same way and I’ve really enjoyed that.

I completely agree with you on that. The first round of games was the lowest scoring first round of group stage games ever in AFCON of one goal on average per game, so you’d imagine the goalkeepers are going to shine, but one of my personal favourites has been seeing Mohamed Kamara shine out of nowhere.

I think we can’t really avoid some of the slightly negative side of things, which we you touched on earlier about the coverage. It has been infuriating to watch the stereotypical negative tropes trotted out by all the European clubs, such as the Jurgen Klopp “Oh, this little tournament…” quote before the tournament which he claims was misinterpreted. How disheartened have you been by the reaction, the preview to AFCON? Is it just the same old story? Take the Janny Sikazwe refereeing moment – moments – and then the reports of going to hospital for dehydration; in short, how disappointed have you been by the negative reaction of European clubs and fans, or are you just sadly used to it?

Yeah, there’s kind of an element of both. It’s been disappointing seeing the kind of coverage that happens when say, for instance, what happened with Janny Sikazwe when he’d made those mad decisions calling full time twice before full time should have been called. Obviously that’s going to make headline news because it’s breaking news, it’s something crazy that’s happened, and it’s real, but what I find disappointing is that then the context is eliminated; the reporting of him having heat stroke and being taken to hospital that’s not really dwelt on. It’s the fact that : “Ah, this only happens in AFCON” and “This is crazy” when it’s happened last year in a game in Sevilla.

I think it’s really important not to bite back in the sense of blind commitment to what’s happened in African football. I think it’s really important to be critical of CAF, of FIFA, of the organizations running African football, because there are huge problems you know, and refereeing is one. But I would say refereeing’s a huge problem everywhere. I think if you look in the UK in particular, it’s a massive problem you know.

It’s been well known for a while the standard of referring in the Premier League has been pretty abysmal relative to its past. There’s a huge refereeing shortage, and so you know I think it’s important not to forget that, but I think it’s really important to stay critical of these institutions, particularly the institutions who have the power and the ones who are making the decisions, that are ultimately hurting the players and the fans.

I think that what frustrates me is when there is this coverage is it’s not “Oh CAF have made this mistake” or “FIFA have done this thing that’s really negatively impacted African football”; it’s “Oh this is African football, this is what it’s like on the continent” and I think that’s what’s really damaging. Absolutely we need to be really, really critical, and that’s the kind of way in which we improve things: we keep institutions to account. But when we’re just throwing that kind of brazen insults at a place, that’s when it’s really frustrating, because that’s when you feel there are these undertones of, whether it’s racism or colonial attitudes you know… “this is bad, the Africans can’t run it themselves, they’re doing bad job you know”. This is what African football is about; it’s chaos and messy. It really is disheartening that that’s the coverage, but it’s not surprising.

I think for me coming into this tournament, if anything there’s there’s been a lot to take heart from because I’m seeing a lot more of particularly the diaspora in countries like the UK really standing up and being incredibly critical of Sky. This is incredibly disrespectful, this is a major tournament – arguably the third biggest football tournament in the world behind the Euros and the World Cup. The Copa America is obviously its own amazing history and I would never want to compare, but you know, particularly into a British audience, a Cup of Nations is huge because of its connections to the continent and so I think that’s what I’ve really enjoyed is seeing a lot of people really standing up really wanting to push back against those narratives. I think that’s what’s really important is it’s kind of pushing back against the narratives, but not doing it in a blind way you know?

For me there is that temptation to be like: “Ah you know this happened to this, you know Graham Poll made an idiot of himself in the World Cup when he booked the same player three times..” And there’s that temptation just to bite back and to fight back. I think there’s an element that’s absolutely we need to push back and you know that’s for all of us, particularly in the media that I think I see that as part of our roles as a kind of almost from a perspective of justice.

We need to give a healthy representation, we need to provide the actual context for things, but it’s really important not to do it in a blind way; in a way in which we’re blindly committed to whoever it is, whether it’s you know Patrice Motsepe who runs CAF, or it’s ultimately Gianni Infantino who runs FIFA who seems to have an inordinate a kind of amount of control over African football. It’s really important not to blindly follow these people. I mean that’s that’s a long-winded way of saying I’m disappointed, but not surprised.

No, you explain it very, very well there. It’s a very good point you may to be critical but also be fair; not just look at where else has also had problems, but also admit the problems that do exist in African football.

I wanted to ask you about the the format of the tournament as well. The last edition was the first 24-team tournament; has that been a successful move in your opinion, making it effectively half the continent in the finals? Is that a positive move for AFCON? We’ve seen a lot of reaction in other confederations, in Europe especially, where people claim it’s diluting the quality, letting anybody into the finals. What about AFCON? Do you think it has been a positive step?

I think it has, and I think this tournament is the perfect example for that. In confederations like UEFA or CONMEBOL in South America I can see the frustration of a lack of… you know, quality dilution, but that’s because the power in those continents is incredibly focused on a few countries. In UEFA you know which five countries are going to win. In South America it’s more restricted even too, but you know with the occasional exception, so where whereas in African football you see there’s a huge variety. I think in the last three Africa Cup of Nations there’s been three different teams on the podiums for each one, so nine different teams have been in first, second and third in the last three editions.

So there is huge amount of competition at the tournament, and we’ve seen that; we’ve seen that in this tournament, we’ve seen the biggest teams, the ones that would be coming with the perspective of “Why do we need 24 teams, why don’t we just do 16?” They’re the ones who are being punished and so I think absolutely, I think it’s a great thing. I think as well, it really really dilutes the amount of power countries have because suddenly you have countries that wouldn’t normally be able to get into a Cup of Nations because they would be in a group with one of the big teams, and suddenly they can get into it – and they can actually show what they’ve got about them.

So I think I think it’s been brilliant, particularly in the continent that is so big with so many countries I think it demands to have that many teams. We’ve really not seen any countries really come in like in those two years massively embarrass themselves. I think probably the closest was Mauritania this time, losing 4-0, 2-0 and 1-0, but even that you know it’s Mauritania – their accomplishment is getting to the tournament. I think it’s an amazing achievement and it’s brilliant for them.

But I think in 2019 we didn’t really see it and on the flip side, what we have seen is we’ve seen the debutants have been fantastic. So in 2019 the one debutant that was there was Madagascar – and they topped their group with Nigeria, they beat them, they got seven points! They ended up getting knocked out – I think in the quarter-finals? I think they beat DRC as well maybe. Then they got they got hammered by Tunisia, but that’s an unbelievable story.

And then this tournament, the two debutants – Gambia and Comoros – I would throw Equatorial Guinea in there as well, because while they’re not debutants, the only two other editions they, without hosting, yeah so this is the first time they’ve qualified. All three of them are in the next round [last 16]. Comoros, they scraped it, absolutely in the craziest of fashion, but Gambia and Equatorial Guinea have been incredible value. Equatorial Guinea beat Algeria, Gambia beat Tunisia, so these are really seriously impressive teams coming through.

I haven’t seen that argument for this tournament like I’ve seen it for the Euros. I haven’t seen as many complaints about it, and I think particularly after this tournament, I cannot see anyone who would have a foot to stand on in arguing against the 24-team format because it has just proven how incredibly valuable it is. It’s also shown that the other criticism I think of it is it’s quite boring, because you know even the big teams if they lose one game they’re still gonna get through.

But we’ve seen this tournament that’s absolutely not true. That jeopardy is there from day one with Algeria and Ghana already out of the tournament. I think that’s where we’ve really seen it come to light so 100% I think the 24-team format is here to stay, and rightfully so. I also must admit as a Kenyan I’m quite biased because it very much opens the field of play for us to qualify a lot more than previously! We still found a way not to qualify this time, so maybe it doesn’t make a difference…

I think you summed it up very well, I completely agree. I think it’s a completely different argument to say 24-team tournaments suit UEFA, CAF, or another confederation; this format works for AFCON. Speaking of the format and organization, we now know for the next AFCON in Ivory Coast, will be – well, is scheduled to be – taking place in summer.

How much madness does that encapsulate for you, or is it just simply bowing to European clubs? Should they bow to European clubs over this? In June, the average temperature in Abidjan will be about 32 degrees with an average of 82% humidity, an extreme risk of cramp and heat exhaustion, with Cote d’Ivoire’s heaviest month for rainfall: it doesn’t sound like a logical time to hold the tournament…

I think that’s the first thing, that people really need to understand, is the climate. The reason you always host these tournaments in the summer is because that’s when it’s the best time to play. Imagine trying to host, say, the Euros in mid-December; you’ve played on Wembley six times in two weeks, even the best pitches in the UK, we see in Premier League pitches – say for instance Leeds, I think last season not this it was a swamp at times, so I think it’s really important to understand that in the African context, the summer months – the European summer months – are not a great time to play football, because you know in North Africa – raging temperature, it’s so hot, and we saw that in Egypt last tournament. But in sub-Saharan Africa it’s well… a) because they’re on the equator, the temperature doesn’t vary as much but b) it’s the rainy season, and that’s what really hammers it.

I watched some of the World Cup qualifiers in July in Cameroon. Quite a few took place in Cameroon because a number of countries didn’t have their own stadiums, didn’t pass the regulation tests, so they had to play in Cameroon – and it was a swamp. It was so hard for them to play. And imagine – the pitches haven’t been great this tournament, they vary quite a lot, but some of them have been pretty poor – but to imagine that, with huge amounts of rainfall, and you know it’s also really important to understand this type of rainfall.

It’s not your really kind of dreary, British summer winter where it’s you know it’s just raining every day, it’s miserable, it’s grey… You know my parents who live in Kenya, a couple weeks ago they had it raining straight for I think it was three days; they had over I think they had 24 inches of rain in that time. This is unbelievable amounts of rain, and you know obviously with things like the climate changing and stuff it’s far more unpredictable, so it’s far harder to manage.

I think that’s the basis of what we need to understand. This is why the Africa Cup of Nations has always been in January: that is THE best time to play. You know, obviously there’s exceptions in the continent; the weather is very different depending on where you are, but for the most part that is the best time in the same way how in Europe and then you know the the northern hemisphere, the best times to play is during the summer months.

I think for this tournament it makes a lot of sense, because obviously the World Cup in 2022 this year is in November/December, and so to host an AFCON a month after that would be would be madness, so for this tournament absolutely it makes total sense to move it to the summer months. That would be crazy from a player’s perspective, but also from a competition’s perspective. Nobody would want to watch an AFCON a month after they watch the World Cup, so it makes total sense to move it to the summer for me in that sense.

But the reason they’ve done that is not necessarily just because of the World Cup. From 2019 the commitment was that they would change every year to the summer. So say for instance this tournament was meant to be last summer, it was meant to be in the summer of 2021, which is why it’s still AFCON 2021. That commitment is still there which I think is problematic, absolutely. I think it’s gonna hurt the tournament, because it’s gonna make it really hard to host for countries and it’s gonna really make it really difficult for fans to enjoy it because everything is just gonna be a lot more difficult to run.

Will it be more helpful for players based in Europe who play along a certain calendar? Absolutely, it’ll help them because they won’t be leaving their club, but I mean from a player’s health perspective, it’s probably not great for them because of the amount of time players get off anyway. So I don’t really buy it from a player’s perspective. There is this sense of: “Oh they’re just bowing down to European pressure and you know that is probably the reality; that UEFA, the ECA, these organizations hold so much power now that they can, even if they do it indirectly or even if they do it unknowingly, they bend these other competitions to their will.

I think that is poor; I think it’s not great for African football, because once again African football is taking a hit for the benefit of Europe, because European football, and particularly the major clubs in Europe, they don’t care about African football. They don’t care if there’s a thriving league system, they don’t care if there are strong teams; because all they want from Africa are the players, right? So as long as they’ve got their elite academies in West Africa or wherever, they can bring those kids over when they’re 16 17.

They couldn’t care less about, say, for instance some of the – and that’s partially why some of these teams that are really good at the international level; your Nigerias, your Ghanas, your Ivory Coasts, have practically non-existent leads when it comes to performance in the Champions League in Africa, the Confederations Cup, because the money is not there for them. The money is there for elite academies to produce the talent, and then take the talent away, so I think it’s more that it’s playing into their hands. Longer term, I think it’s really going to hurt African football. It’s not going to encourage this further strengthening of leagues, it’s just going to encourage a further kind of Eurocentric, centricity to the competition, so I think it’s bad. I don’t like it, but I mean I guess time will tell how damaging it actually will be. Because a lot of African countries do play along the same calendar as the European one.

It’s not like all African countries are playing to the kind of the the calendar of the AFCON, so a lot of these leagues are still going on. These teams still have to play without their their best players, and that’s part of it. So I think for some leagues, maybe it will be better in Africa to have their players getting the summer; they’ll stay with the team during the season. In the end I’m not a big fan of it. I think it will, longer term, really hurt the credibility of the continent.

Obviously the winter World Cup this year makes perfect sense to stage AFCON in summer, but it’s almost like a lose-lose situation; in January, we are never going to stop hearing, Premier League clubs complaining about losing their players, as if the tournament has sprung out of nowhere and they didn’t know about it at the beginning of the season. In a European winter, you’re going to have complaints from club managers in the middle of the season; if it happens in summer, the quality and ability to stage the tournament will be affected.

Okay, so just to finish off then, I’m gonna have to put you really on the spot now; I’ve saved the hardest question till last. In arguably the least predictable tournament, you have to tell me who is nailed on to win AFCON this year. Come on, who are you throwing your weight behind?

That is tough… I mean when I came into the tournament, I said my three favourites were Algeria, Senegal and Cameroon, and I had Mali as my dark horses. Well, you know Algeria are already knocked out, so that’s not gone well. But of course then everyone who watched the group stages would have been like: “Oh well, Nigeria are gonna get to the final, whether they’ll play Cameroon according to, well, we’ll see. Suddenly Nigeria are out, so it’s…

My honest answer would be I have no idea. I think in terms of both performances and capacity to go far I still wouldn’t put it past Cameroon. Even coming into the tournament, I thought this is not a good kind of Cameroon side, this is not a vintage Cameroon team. But to be honest, Cameroon won the AFCON in 2017, I would say with an arguably weaker team. There’s certain countries that I would say similarly. With Tunisia, though not to the same extent, and Egypt you know; even if they don’t have the best, strong squads, they have such pedigree at this level, particularly Cameroon. They really show up, and I think the emergence of Aboubakar – re-emergence after a brilliant 2017, didn’t make the 2019 squad because he tore his ACL and he has had to reinvent his career moving out to Saudi Arabia, when he was doing so well at Porto and in Turkey. I think him coming back, Cameroon being at home; I think they’re the ones who have to be favourites.

I think the reason I would say this, even going into knockout stages I wouldn’t have backed Nigeria as much, and same with Cote d’Ivoire, even though I think they’ve been the two best teams in the group stages. It’s because both of these teams have a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes and have been really chaotic. Nigeria replaced the manager Gernot Rohr just a couple months, less than a month, before the tournament started, bringing in Augustine Eguavoen. They have a lot of problems behind the scenes in the federation.

Likewise in the Cote d’Ivoire there have been a lot of problems behind the scenes; Patrice Beuamelle has come under huge criticism, and a lot of people are saying: “Why on earth is even here still coming into the tournament?” I think before the tournament started, he only had one good performance, when they beat Cameroon in World Cup qualifying, but since then they’ve been really, really disappointing.

I think I still wouldn’t put it past Cote d’Ivoire having a similar performance to what Nigeria did on Sunday when they lost 1-0 to Tunisia, having not an implosion, but coming up against a team that is wily, that is difficult to beat like Tunisia and really, really struggling. Whereas I think Cameroon with the fans on their back, with someone who’s proven that he can carry the goal-scoring weight, and with a fairly well-balanced squad, I think I would still have to say Cameroon. But like I said, this is the hardest tournament to decide you know, I wouldn’t put it past Malawi coming and randomly winning, it’s just that chaotic and incredibly confusing, so we’ll see.

I picked Algeria as my pre-tournament favourites, and well, like you mentioned…

It made a lot of sense!

If I could sum up in one thing what I’ve loved about AFCON, it’d be that none of it seems to make sense, in a really brilliantly, entertaining way. Try to plan, organize and predict it, you’re going to get nowhere.

Thank you so much for your time, I massively appreciate it. It’s been an absolutely fascinating insight into African football, so we would love to have you back on to chat about anything African football in the future, and hopefully we can learn a bit more as more people will be exposed and fall in love with African football too. Thank you so much, we really appreciate your time.

No, thank you so much! I’ve really enjoyed it, and any chance to talk about African football I’m there, so absolutely I’ll definitely be coming back.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

2 comments on “Alasdair Howorth Interview: AFCON 2021, On The Whistle, Attitudes to Africa

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