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Jonathan Wilson – theguardian.com: AFCON changes will do far more harm than good

The new June start will reduce club-country wrangles but the weather could be a problem and the increase to 24 teams is a terrible idea

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 (FA), 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 (CAF) in 2017 decided that the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) would, 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.

TOP: Cameroon, who would have been hosts of 2019 AFCON before it re-located to Morocco, celebrate with the trophy after beating Egypt 2-1 to win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final

TOP: Cameroon, who would have been hosts of 2019 AFCON before it re-located to Morocco, celebrate with the trophy after beating Egypt 2-1 to win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final. Above: Tanzania at National Stadium, Dar es Salaam, last week before beating Uganda 3-0 to reach AFCON Finals for the first time since 1980

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 in 2017.

But there is a reason the Cup of Nations was held in January and February: weather. (Before being relocated to Morocco) the next tournament was 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 was worth that compromise to satisfy European clubs is open to doubt; it would certainly not have happened when Issa Hayatou was the CAF president.

Harambee Stars at home in one of the early matches of the 2019 AFCON campaign

Kenyaa’s Harambee Stars at home in one of the early matches of the 2019 AFCON campaign. They are back at AFCON since 2004, their sixth time

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. This is supposed to be elite sport, not a GLC (Greater London Council) 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?

Uganda Cranes at National Stadium, Dar es Salaam, last Sunday. Beaten 3-0 by Tanzania's Taifa Stars but the Ugandans were already headed to their seventh AFCON participation. Uganda lost the 1978 final 0-2 to Ghana

Uganda Cranes at National Stadium, Dar es Salaam, last Sunday. Beaten 3-0 by Tanzania’s Taifa Stars but the Ugandans were already headed to their seventh AFCON participation. Uganda lost the 1978 final 0-2 to Ghana

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.

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.

Gael Duhayindavyi (No. 8) celebrates with teammates during one of Burundi qualification matches

Gael Duhayindavyi (No. 8) celebrates with teammates during one of Burundi qualification matches

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 was already behind schedule in its preparations for 2019 re-located to Morocco they could not cope with the pressure to prepare two additional venues. Morocco, having pulled out of hosting duties for 2015 over Ebola fears, stood by and were accepted (June temperature in Marrakech 32 degrees, precipitation nil).

White Elephants, sorry sight: Venues of 2017 AFCON in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea littered littered with new-built stadiums that will never be used again

White Elephants, sorry sights: Venues of 2017 AFCON in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea littered littered with new-built stadiums that will never be used again

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?

-Additional reporting by Correspondents

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