Wright is right but...

Star attraction: AFCON has the potential to dazzle PIC: ZELLANEWS.COM
Star attraction: AFCON has the potential to dazzle PIC: ZELLANEWS.COM

The Africa Cup of Nations is CAF’s flagship competition. But it has been far from smooth sailing for a tournament struggling for relevance. The tournament found an influential ally in former England and Arsenal striker, Ian Wright who recently protested that the AFCON was being disrespected. While Wright’s words ring true, Mmegi Sport Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE argues there is more CAF needs to do to genuinely place the tournament where it is supposed to be

Africa’s finest talent converged in Cameroon early this month for what is supposed to be the continent’s biggest football jamboree. The festival has got off to an underwhelming start with sparse crowds on the terraces to go with languid displays on the pitch. On Wednesday, Zambian referee, Janny Sikwaze laced the mediocrity with one of the most controversial officiating seen in recent years.

He prematurely ended the match between Tunisia and Mali, re-started the game and again blew the whistle before the 90 minutes, scoring one of the quickest and most embarrassing hattrick of blunders. The flash-point provided cannon fodder for the ever present AFCON critics and pessimists. At least the Sikwaze incident gave fans the first real talking point of a sleep-inducing tournament that has failed to rise to the occasion thus far. It, however, does not mean such gaffes are limited to Africa as referees across the world have their silly moments.

But back to Wright’s criticism over a lack of respect of the 65-year-old competition; the Arsenal legend argues the AFCON, which is a year-old than the much-hyped and wealthier UEFA European competition, is being given little respect. The AFCON competition is the third oldest continental tournament, only behind the COPA America (106) and the Asian Cup (66).

However, the African competition finds itself down the pecking order in terms of respect accorded and general organisation. “Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?” Wright quizzed in a video which was posted on social media. One of the contentious issues has been the hosting of the tournament in January, when most leagues in Europe are in full swing.

The continent’s top talent is scattered across European league and the AFCON schedule has created unending club versus country feuds. Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp recently called the AFCON a ‘little tournament’, ruffling feathers in the process. While it is undisputed the tournament deserves better treatment, some of the attitude towards the competition is down to own goals scored by the continent’s administrators.

The organisation has been chaotic at times. The prize money for the winners has improved to $5million but still below what the COPA America champions get, which is $6.5million.

Africa is FIFA’s largest constituency with 54 members, but the continent’s biggest competition is still to reflect this numerical advantage. The AFCON finals viewership is estimated at six billion television viewers worldwide, which should bring better broadcast rights deals. The tournament has an added attraction of star players drawn from the world’s biggest league.

In England, one of the world’s most watched league, there are a number of African players setting the stage alight including Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, Liverpool duo, Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane.

The expectation is that the organisers will leverage on the pulling power of these stars to improve the quality of the tournament. Facilities have been identified as another sore point, although the stadia used for AFCON has been decent. FIFA as the mother body, is complicit in sustaining the scorn and disrespect the AFCON faces. It is business as usual for most leagues in the world, even where there is a high presence of African players. Even the Club World Cup, a FIFA competition, will kick-off before the AFCON concludes, providing another counter-attraction.

The disrespect therefore starts right at FIFA’s doorstep.

If FIFA wanted to preserve whatever remains of AFCON’s dignity, it would have ensured the club competition is held before or after the continental tournament. Wright mentioned the issue of racism contributing to the AFCON being viewed as a little tournament. It can be argued it is a situation that also affects South America where the continent’s major tournament, the COPA America, is not highly rated.

But while Africa cannot control the dominant narrative that prevails in the West, there are housekeeping issues that can improve the tournament, starting with the manner of organisation at CAF. More effort is needed from authorities at CAF to re-energise a tournament that was so popular in the past.

There was huge appetite for the game not long ago, and the heads in Cairo, CAF’s headquarters, should come together to identify where things started going south. It would be difficult to demand respect from across the seas, when the house is not entirely in order.

Editor's Comment
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