By Abdulrazak Iliyasu Sansani
I had initially not titled this article “AFCON: The gigantic tournament” not because I had less respect for it hitherto. “I’ve heard that so often, that there’s no international break until March,” Jurgen Klopp said. “In January, there’s a little tournament in Africa, I just want to say, and I think Asia is playing games, too – South America as well. Great, can’t wait!” But I have done so now primarily to respond to the purported disregard, misinformation, or rather outright disrespect directed at the most prestigious football tournament in Africa, which Jurgen Klopp’s comment on the African Cup of Nations seems to convey, as less relevant. I have tremendous respect for Klopp, one of the finest tacticians in football. I can’t certainly say he meant to disrespect the AFCON, though, this doesn’t stop me from tackling what is gradually gaining credence in Europe whether glaringly or subtly: the scanty regard for AFCON.
I had once written an article titled the Pinnacle of African football and the quest for glory. It would have been published ahead of the last edition of AFCON in Egypt. However, it was never published. The said title aptly captured how I view African football. I believe this is how the vast majority of African football fanatics regard it. And no amount of disrespect, misunderstanding, red herrings, or disinformation could alter that.
The biggest event in African football commences on 9th January, with five times Champions Cameroon taking on Burkina Faso in Olembe Stadium in Yaounde. It is the curtain-raiser for the most important tournament in African football. The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, known as the Total 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, is the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, the tournament will be hosted by Cameroon, the Champions of the 31st edition. The competition was held in June/July in the previous edition, which Algeria won.
But this edition has been moved back to January/February. Cameroon were to host the last edition, only for them to be stripped of the hosting right in November 2018 mainly for three reasons: Anglophone crisis, delays in the delivery of critical infrastructure, and the Boko Haram crisis. This edition of the AFCON has come with numerous challenges even before it starts. Strong opposition has come from many angles centred on the timing of the AFCON. Confederation of African Football (CAF) has reverted back to AFCON’s traditional calendar, as against the normal Summer calendar used in major international competitions like the World Cup and European Football competition, though the former is set to be played in November this year, unlike the prior editions.
The bulk of the opposition to the timing of the AFCON has understandably come from European clubs, who have a lot to lose by having some of their key players miss some features for the duration of the AFCON. These have made many clubs to devise means to keep their players against the wishes of the players or in collaboration with the players. This has allegedly seen some of the clubs going out of their ways to engage in unethical practices in order to keep their players from playing for their countries. We heard former Super Eagles player, John Ogu made startling revelations about his manager asking him to fake injuries in order to prevent him from playing for the Nigerian national team, ‘not even surprised at the situation of the foreign managers or clubs not wanting their players to go represent their country in tournaments,’ Ogu tweeted.
‘One certain manager in Portugal asked [that] I tell the coach of Eagles then that I was injured so as not to go for a friendly game.
‘After I left, went back to the club, he stopped playing me, and this was prior to the World Cup coming that year. I made mentioned it here and many out here said I was lying and so on. Una don see how them be now?’
Ogu, who eventually missed out on the 2014 tournament, has been without a club in 2020, as reported by Goal.com Africa.
‘I missed out on that World Cup list,’ he continued. “The evil part of it was when the list came out and he found out I wasn’t invited, man, walk up to me and asked I call the manager to list me and that if he wants, he can start me in the last game in the league.” ‘I was shocked how evil one can be.’ You could see the length some of these clubs could go. It is absurd, gratuitous, unacceptable, and a blatant disregard for African football and Africa in general.
European Club Association wrote FIFA, stating why they might not release players for AFCON: health, the welfare of players, and the timing of the AFCON. The ECA further accused African football affiliated associations of failing to “properly implement protocols with worrying degrees of negligence.” The ECA said they would release African players for the forthcoming 2021 African Cup of Nations only when national football associations in Africa meet certain stringent conditions. At its meeting of December 2, 2021, the ECA in an official letter to FIFA Deputy Secretary-General Matthias Grafstrom and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), made their position known, especially with the raging Omicron variant of Covid_19. The ECA mandated FIFA and CAF to ensure necessary precautions are in place to protect players and club interests ahead of the tournament.
I have to concede that there are vital issues to iron out in the timing of the AFCON and the ECA are entitled to protect their interests. So also are CAF and its member associations. CAF will be unfair to its affiliated associations if it remains adamant on the current calendar merely to prove a point that it has sufficient grounds. However, all these don’t give the ECA the impetus let alone the justification to insult African football. Going forward there should be a clearly defined means, concessions, and major decisions must be made by all stakeholders for a mutually beneficial solution.
I know certainly that if it were the other way round: The backlash from the European press, clubs, and fans would have been deafening. A Series of sanctions would have been in place on those clubs from FIFA. CAF, FIFA, and all stakeholders should treat this matter thoroughly with a view to finding a lasting solution that has the players, the fans, and everyone in mind. Above all, a workable remedy that upholds the dignity of Africans and aids the development of the beautiful game should be rigorously pursued.
Abdulrazak Iliyasu Sansani Writes from Turaki B, Jalingo, Taraba State and can be contacted via email@example.com.