London- On 26 October 1863 the representatives of 11 schools and football clubs met at the Freemasons’ Tavern near Covent Garden in London and founded the Football Association, seeking to establish a unified set of laws, essentially so that those who had gone to different public schools could play against each other when they met at university. Ever since, it feels, the notion of the sport as an end in itself, as a good to be cherished and protected, has been dwindling. Short-term self-interest rules.
The Confederation of African Football at least last week decided that the Cup of Nations will, for now, be played in Africa and will feature only African teams, rejecting suggestions from its marketing committee to explore the possibility of inviting three or four nations from elsewhere and playing the competition outside the continent. But as of 2019, the tournament will be played in June and July rather than January and February and it will comprise 24 rather than 16 teams.
To which the reaction can only be a weary sigh as another great tournament goes the way of the World Cup and the Euros. The shift of date is problematic (not least in that the 2021 tournament will clash with the Confederations Cup) but there are arguments for it. African players at western European clubs will no longer find themselves with competing claims on their attention every other season – which should benefit the players, the clubs and the countries, and lead to fewer wrangles such as that between Liverpool and Cameroon over Joël Matip this year.
But there is a reason the Cup of Nations was held in January and February: weather. The next tournament is scheduled to be hosted in Cameroon. In June in Yaoundé the mean daily high temperature is 27 degrees, with average monthly rainfall of 170mm and 85% humidity. These are not ideal conditions for football. Whether it is worth that compromise to satisfy European clubs is open to doubt; it would certainly not have happened when Issa Hayatou was the CAF president.
The expansion to 24 teams is not even debatable. It is a terrible idea, diluting the quality and rendering the group stage a slog of largely meaningless football. There will be those who claim an expanded tournament gives a chance to smaller nations and point to the experiences of Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland at the 2016 European Championship, ignoring the fact that all three would have qualified for a 16-team tournament. In France last summer it took 36 games to reduce 24 teams to 16. Based on the qualifying record, that in effect meant substituting the Republic of Ireland and Hungary for Austria and the Czech Republic. Neither reached the quarter-finals. This is supposed to be elite sport, not a GLC sports day.
Perhaps even that could be tolerated if there was any evidence an appearance at a Cup of Nations is an aid to development. Have Botswana or Niger kicked on since qualifying in 2012? Have Malawi benefited from being there in 2010, or Namibia from 2008? Or has the decade since Togo and Angola reached the World Cup been a golden age for football in either country?
Besides which, 24 is an awful number for a tournament if filtering to a last 16*, because it entails best third-placed teams. Comparing between groups always feels artificial and can lead to anomalies that, through the fault of nobody but the format, seem unfair. At the European Under-21 Championship this summer, for instance, the teams in Group C had a clear advantage because, playing last, they knew what was necessary for, in this case, a best second-placed team to progress: Germany, trailing to Italy, had little incentive to press for an equaliser because they knew a 1-0 defeat gave them a semi-final against England while a heavier defeat would have seen them miss out to Slovakia, the second-placed team in Group A.
At the Gold Cup, meanwhile, Honduras qualified ahead of Martinique as a best third-placed side entirely because they were awarded a 3-0 win for a game against French Guiana that had initially finished 0-0, Martinique were punished in effect because French Guiana had wilfully played Florent Malouda despite knowing he was ineligible.
Then there is the problem of hosting. A 16-team tournament requires four stadiums and even that is not always easy. In 2015, for instance, two of the quarter-finals were switched at the last minute from Ebebiyin and Mongomo because the infrastructure there was simply not good enough.
That, perhaps, is an exception given Equatorial Guinea had stepped in with a month’s notice to replace Morocco as hosts but recent tournaments are littered with new-built stadiums that will never be used again (this, perhaps, is the underlying logic of the proposal to move the tournament to a different continent: rather than the Chinese constantly funding and building stadiums in Africa, there perhaps comes a point at which it is easier to take the tournament to pre-existing Chinese stadiums). A 24-team tournament means a minimum of six stadiums and that not only reduces the number of potential hosts but means increased investment in white elephants.
Cameroon is already behind schedule in its preparations for 2019, while struggling with increasing tension between the Anglophone and Francophone parts of the country. These decisions have at least given it an extra five months to get ready but it will now have to prepare two additional venues. Morocco, having pulled out of hosting duties for 2015 over Ebola fears, is standing by (June temperature in Marrakech 32 degrees, precipitation nil).
But this is about more than 2019. It is about more than Africa. It is about sporting authorities acting not in the interests of the sport but for short-term financial gain. Increase the number of finalists by 50% and you decrease your chance of missing out. More than that, you decrease the chances of the vital markets of Nigeria and South Africa missing out.
Will the football be better or meaningful? Will it help African sides prepare for the challenge of the World Cup? Is this, in any broad sense, good for the game? Of course not but who still cares about that?
[*This is an academic point because nobody would ever do this but if 24 filtered to quarter-finals, you could have eight groups of three and avoid dead rubbers so long as you had flexibility in the scheduling so the fixtures in each group went A v B followed by C v the loser of A v B followed by C v the winner of A v B].
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