Reported, threatened with cancellation, criticized, the 33e African Cup of Nations (CAN) did indeed start on Sunday January 9 in Cameroon with a victory for the host country, where the enthusiasm is no more in doubt than the interest of the entire continent for “its” competition.
Initially scheduled for June 2021, a period adopted during the previous edition in Egypt, this edition has been rescheduled to its historic winter slot. Precisely the one that has long been a problem, and has again aroused sighs and lamentations from European clubs.
At the end of December, in the face of criticism, the Ivorian international Sébastien Haller lamented a “lack of respect for Africa”former England player Ian Wright wondered if there was “a most despised tournament” and former star Samuel Eto’o, now president of the Cameroon Federation, flew into a rage.
Two weights, two measures
Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp pleaded the misunderstanding, in November 2021, for the use of the expression “little tournament”. In fact, he did not comment on the prestige of the competition, but, ironically, on its weight in the calendar.
A year ago, the German already reflected the feeling that this CAN was too much competition, describing his trip in January and February as “catastrophe for us, who [fera] lose three players. In fact, the Reds are currently without Sadio Mané (Senegal), Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Naby Keita (Guinea).
The year of a World Cup in November, it is particularly inappropriate to denigrate a CAN in January. CAF even granted Premier League clubs the right to release players only on January 3, six days before the start of the tournament. The day before their departure, Mané and Salah were able to score in the summit against Chelsea.
The clubs complain of having too many internationals, claim that it is the selections that exhaust “their” players, not them, and prefer to leave them to them at the end of the season (exhausted). The dantesque schedule of the Premier League at the end of the year or the Champions League formula which will impose a hundred more games from 2024 do not arouse their ire…
We are rightly worried about the pace imposed on the players. However, the responsibility for the saturation of the calendars being shared between all the organizers of competitions, playing the balance of power between clubs and selections is absurd – or self-serving.
The writer Mabrouck Rachedi is therefore right to be ironic about the “double standard” which prevails for the CAN, its continental equivalents – Euro and Copa América – suffering less criticism. Let’s say that if the selection competitions have become the poor relatives of a football dominated by club competitions, the CAN is the poorest cousin.
Europe and Africa
The competition also revives the debates around binational players, in Europe and Africa, illustrating their crossed and complex links through the African diaspora. This provided European internationals and, in return, African internationals. It is better to welcome this reciprocity than to make it a problem on both sides of the Mediterranean.
European football should in any case take its side of the CAN, instead of suing it for legitimacy and making the players feel guilty. The competition has certainly not always defended its cause well, with its sometimes chaotic organization, its ritual conflicts about player bonuses, controversies over arbitration or unexpected changes of coach.
“To be respected, African football must be respectable”, noted the journalist Smaïl Bouabdellah in the pretty guide to the competition produced by Les Remplacants. Its very autonomy remains to be conquered. The recent election of Patrice Motsepe as President of CAF illustrated a deep institutional crisis at the same time as the very political interference of FIFA.
The biennial World Cup project pushed by the latter thus proceeds from an electoralist strategy and takes the pretext of a revaluation of the African selections to obtain the support of their federations – as much for this reform as for the re-election of President Gianni Infantino in 2023.
Patrice Motsepe is committed to making “African football the best in the world”. For the time being, it is rather a question of enforcing the right of the African Cup of Nations to bring together the best African footballers in front of an African public.