An African Cup of Nations Primer
The tournament’s development over the years reflects the fate of the post-independence era in Africa, both in terms of the promise and frustrations of decolonization.
The 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations or Afcon kicks off on Sunday, January 9th. A total of 24 teams have qualified for the month-long tournament hosted by Cameroon. More on the host later.
First, though, who do I fancy to win?
Algeria, the defending champions, is everyone’s favorite. It has been unbeaten for 27 matches, is coming off a convincing win over Tunisia in the final of the FIFA Arab Cup last December, and has the most evenly balanced squad. ((Footnote for another time: I don’t have the time here to go into the history of the Arab Cup, first played in 1965, but it is a sign of FIFA’s fluidity in how it thinks about “continental” competitions.)
Algeria’s closest rivals for the Afcon is Senegal, the losing finalists of Afcon 2019. It may come as a surprise to some that Senegal has never won an Afcon. Not even with its greatest generation of the early 2000s; in fact, current coach Aliou Cisse is an alumnus of that team. This may be Senegal’s best chance. As my friend, Tony Karon reminded me, it is worth noting that in the tradition of international teams from all countries having "golden generations" and then being on the margins before the next few years or decades, the current Senegal squad is player-for-player arguably even more of a golden generation than the 2002 squad. To mention just the most prominent players in the current squad, who can be considered the best in their positions: Eduoard Mendy of Chelsea, Kalidou Koulibaly at Napoli and Sadio Mane at Liverpool.
Then there’s Egypt. It has won the AFCON a record seven times, including once, in 1959, when it competed as the United Arab Republic; Nasser had combined Egypt with Syria into a single sovereign republic. Egypt’s problem is that it has only one Mohamad Salah. That said, most of the rest of the team comes from the country’s two biggest clubs, Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek, who marshal their intense local rivalry into collective energies for the national team. (Al Ahly happens to be the current African Champions League and Super Club Cup winners.) That leaves the hosts Cameroon as well as Nigeria, whose teams often bring the instability of their politics to Afcon. (Nigeria, for example, fired their coach, Gernot Rohr, right before the tournament and – predictably – replaced him with an unproven, former national team player, Augustine Eguavoen.) If the tournament is not won by one of those five teams, I'll eat my hat with pepper soup.
Africa Loves the Premier League, but the EPL hates AFCON
Rumors that Afcon 2022 would be scratched dominated the pre-tournament hype. Afcon has a history of postponements, but this time it seemed particularly vicious. These rumors found particular traction in European, especially British, media. The English Premier League (EPL) clubs (who, under FIFA rules, are forced to release a number of their top players for a month of their regular season to go play in Afcon) and their media played up the rumor, not least because COVID-19 and the violent civil war in Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces are real threats. These look like legitimate concerns until you realize that COVID-19 was of no consequence last summer during Euro 2021 or that since September 2021 crowds aren’t banned from EPL club games despite a surge in new COVID-19 cases there. (Some leagues like the German Bundesliga have banned fans altogether, while others like France, Spain, and Italy allow for 50% capacity in stadiums.) As for civil war, that hasn’t stopped FIFA or its continental federations in the past from going ahead with football tournaments. Africans aren't letting European double standards slide anymore without any pushback. Russia 2018 was played against the backdrop of the host’s tensions with its neighbors and breakaway republics. And the preparations of Qatar 2022 have been plagued by deaths at stadium construction sites as well as the government’s terrible human rights record. Despite widespread criticism (some opportunistic: think the Saudis), there are no serious moves afoot for Qatar to be stripped of its hosting rights, and we don’t expect to see any.
The real complaint of EPL owners and their media was over an old tension: that of “club vs country.” Most of the players representing their national teams in Afcon earn their wages at European clubs. Unlike the equivalent continent-wide tournaments for Latin America and Europe, which are played in the northern hemisphere’s summer months (June and July), Afcon is played in January, right in the middle of European club seasons. In some European leagues, especially the EPL, January results can determine whether a club wins the title, qualify for a Champion’s League spot, or survives relegation – all of those being questions with hundreds of millions of euros riding on the answers. And the Premier League is the one in which African players feature the most prominently — between 30 and 40 African players from 16 of the EPL’s 20 teams are in Cameroon for Afcon. Some clubs will lose up to five players from their first team squads to AFCON. For many, we’re talking players on the margins of the first team, so a lot of the reporting is hyperbole, but for a few - Arsenal, Liverpool, Leicester, and Crystal Palace - not having their African players could heavily impact their fortunes.
Arsenal, which has had an improvement of form after a dismal start this season, will temporarily lose Thomas Partey (Ghana), Nicolas Pepe (Côte d’Ivoire), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), and Mohamed Elneny (Egypt). While Aubameyang (who has COVID-19 and may not play in the tournament’s first games) is on the outs and Elneny is a bench player, Partey and Pepe have been central to the club’s revival. Crystal Palace - whose manager Patrick Vieira is the only black and or African coach in the Premier League and who encouraged his players to go to Afcon - will part with Cheikhou Kouyate (Senegal), Jordan Ayew (Ghana), and Wilfried Zaha (Côte d’Ivoire). Leicester City has to give up the services of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria) as well as Daniel Amartey (Ghana). (Vieira, incidentally, was born in Senegal of Cabo Verdean ancestry, and won the World Cup with France.)
Of all the EPL clubs, Liverpool FC will arguably pay the heaviest price. It has three players (Salah, Mane and Naby Keita of Guinea) at Afcon. Liverpool is eleven points behind league leaders, Manchester City. Only one of the latter’s first-team squad, Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, is away in Cameroon. Not having Salah (probably the best player in the world right now; he has scored 16 goals in 20 games so far in the EPL this season) could extinguish the admittedly dimming prospect of Liverpool overtaking City. Add to that the loss of Mane, probably Liverpool’s hardest working forward, and Keita. If any of the Liverpool players’ teams make it to the final (Mane’s Senegal and Salah’s Egypt have excellent chances of doing so), Liverpool’s striking partners could be gone for up to one month.
But, do the European clubs have a point?
The predictable response would be to condemn European clubs and media for arrogance, selfishness, or racism. But that would be pandering. You can’t resent European clubs’ demands: For one, they pay the players’ salaries. They’d want to protect their investments. Injuries are also a real worry. As for the timing, the other continental tournaments are held in the summer (Copa America, Gold Cup, Asian Cup, Euros), why should Afcon, organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), be any different?
The players themselves also support the European clubs’ calls for the tournament to move from January. They’ve been doing so since the early 2000s, when African players first started to determine the fate of their clubs, especially in the EPL, and there were calls to move the tournament to the summer. If you need reminding, the early 2000s were when, for example, Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou (Côte d’Ivoire), Michael Essien (Ghana), and John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), were at the heart of Chelsea's title campaigns. Papa Bouba Diop (Senegal), Kanu (Nigeria), Sulley Muntari (Ghana), and Lauren (Cameroon) starred at Portsmouth, and Joseph Yobo, Yakubu Ayegbeni (both Nigeria), and Steven Pienaar (South Africa) were in the driving seat for Everton. These players could write books about paying for their plane tickets to games or flying around the world for meaningless friendlies because the head of their national federation was promised a seat on a lucrative FIFA committee or equivalent.
Finally, it is not as if CAF protects player interests. Preparations are usually haphazard, the quality of pitches makes injury more likely while players often clash with federations over frivolous call ups for “friendlies”, and pay and bonuses. (We could invent a drinking game for how many teams will have showdowns with their federations over bonuses; at AFCON 2019 players from Cameroon and Zimbabwe protested non-payment of bonuses by deliberately arriving late in Egypt; in another infamous case, at the World Cup in Brazil 2014, Ghana’s government had to fly in $3 million in hard cash to pay striking national team players.
How did we get here
The first AFCON was played in February 1957; three years before the Euros was played. The organizers decided on playing every two years. The decision to play at the start of the year may have had to do with the adverse weather conditions in the months coinciding with the northern summer (dry and humid heat in north Africa, rainy season in West and Central Africa, and cold, wet temperatures in the south).
Four participants - Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Africa - who were also the founding members of CAF, were invited. Curiously, South Africa was represented by white football administrators. I couldn’t understand why CAF didn’t invite black football representatives, but let’s move on. The South Africans insisted on fielding a whites-only team and were promptly disqualified. That left three teams and two matches. Egypt first beat Sudan, and then Ethiopia in the final. The same teams met two years later in Cairo and Egypt won its second title. CAF skipped 1961 and held AFCONs in 1962 and 1963. Ethiopia won in 1962 in Addis Ababa (four teams competed), while Ghana won in 1963 (by now 8 teams qualified) and 1965. The Democratic Republic of Congo won in 1968. The 1960s was a honeymoon period for independence and football politics reflected it. In fact, African countries, led by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, boycotted the qualification for the 1966 World Cup because the continent was not guaranteed a place at the tournament. (The whole of Africa had to qualify for one slot at the World Cup: first, via a play-off with a European opponent, and, later, the Asian winner.)
The 1970s brought two new champions for Afcon. Apart from Ghana, who won again in 1978 (becoming the first team with three AFCON titles) and Zaire (the former DRC) won again in 1974 (the same year they went to the World Cup), Sudan won in 1970, and Morocco in 1976.
The 1980s saw the emergence and consolidation of what we now know as the “African giants”: Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria.
Nigeria won Afcon in 1980), Ghana won again in 1982, while Cameroon won twice (1984 and 1988) and Egypt made up the balance (1986). The other breakout team of the 1980s was Algeria. They lost to Nigeria in the 1980 final but played in at least three Afcon semi-finals that decade. (Footnote: Algeria and Cameroon were Africa’s representatives at the 1982 World Cup when the continent was awarded a second automatic qualifying spot. Neither team embarrassed themselves. Cameroon played to three draws against Poland, Peru, and Italy (the eventual champions), while Algeria would be cheated out of a place in the knockout rounds courtesy of a conspiracy by Germany and Austria.
The 1990s began with Cameroon embarrassing champions Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup. They eventually made it to the quarterfinals where they were knocked out by England. Earlier that year, Algeria won the Afcon. At the next tournament, in 1992, CAF increased the participants to 12 teams in the finals. The decade belonged to Nigeria who won Afcon in 1994, qualified for the World Cup, and won the Olympic Games in 1996. But on blot on Nigeria’s Afcon record in that decade: It got kicked out of the 1996 Afcon tournament because its dictatorship killed nine Ogoni activists, including writer Ken Saro Wiwa. That left hosts South Africa to win its first and only Afcon. (Important: Sixteen teams, up from 12, participated in the 1996 Afcon). Nigeria’s expulsion, represented, along with South Africa’s disqualification in 1959, two high points in the history of Afcon. The decade closed out with Egypt’s fourth championship in 1998.
The 2000s brought a series of predictable champions: Cameroon in 2000, 2002, and 2017; Egypt in 2006, 2008, and 2010; Nigeria in 2013 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2015. One exception was Zambia’s emotional 2012 title (they beat Cote d’Ivoire) in Gabon, the site of a tragic plane accident in 1993 which claimed the lives of Zambia’s late 1980s-early 1990s generation of players (Kwalusya Bwalya, the team captain, survived as he took a different flight). The golden generation of players who died in that crash had represented Zambia when they embarrassed Italy 4-0 at the 1988 Olympic Games, and later were on the verge of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.
Football and decolonization
Fittingly, the tournament’s development over the years reflects the fate of the post-independence era in Africa, both in terms of the promise and frustrations of decolonization (the original version).
The disqualifications of white South African football over racism in 1957 and Nigeria over human rights in 1996, suggested that some in CAF had principles. (Nigeria’s expulsion in 1996 was largely the doing of Nelson Mandela’s diplomatic work when South Africa – all too briefly – had an ethical foreign policy).
Zaire’s dominance in the early to mid-1970s exposed African teams to the allure of tying football success to dictatorship; a model pioneered by Franco in Spain and replicated in Haiti by Duvalier.
The 1980s, which saw a significant globalization of European club football’s playing squads, portended the dominance of European-based players in Africa’s national teams. CAF lifted the limit on foreign-based players (two) in 1982. These days, some teams, like Algeria and Morocco, are made up almost exclusively of the children of North African immigrants in Europe. And teams like Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria also have significant diaspora representation. Because it got so hard for locally based players to get into national squads for Afcon (or the World Cup), in 2007 CAF introduced a 16-team continental championship, the Chan, which prohibited countries from selecting players plying their trade in European or Asian leagues. That competition, played every two years, has been organized seven times already.
Historically, white, European coaches have dominated in Afcon. With few exceptions, many of these men wouldn’t and can’t find work even in the lower tiers of European football. A number of these journeyman coaches often did the rounds between African countries. It may have exposed a belief in supposed European competence dating back to colonialism. Afcon 2022 confirms a welcome shift: 15 of the 24 coaches in this year’s tournament are African.
Then there’s CAF’s decision making. On the eve of the 2010 Afcon hosted by Angola, Togo’s team bus was attacked in 2010 in Cabinda, an oil-rich region of Angola fighting for political independence. Among those on the bus was Emmanuel Adebayor, then a star at Arsenal FC in the EPL. Four people, including two players, died. The Togolese said they didn’t feel safe and withdrew from the tournament. In a strange and cowardly decision, CAF fined Togo $50,000 for withdrawing and then banned the team from the next two Afcons.
The brief threat about taking Afcon away from Cameroon or postponing it because it again because of COVID-19, recent years have seen a trend of designated host countries being replaced. In 1996 South Africa replaced Kenya, whose preparations weren’t up to scratch. In 2000, Zimbabwe’s right was taken away over unfinished stadiums; Libya couldn’t host in 2013 and 2017 over the civil war; and in 2015, Morocco canceled over Ebola. (Morocco was afraid visitors from West Africa would bring it. Some thought it was just prejudice.) Though democracies like Ghana and Nigeria (2000) or South Africa (2013) have stepped in to host at the last minute, recently mostly authoritarian states got to sub in as Afcon hosts: Equatorial Guinea 2015, Gabon 2017, Egypt 2019, and now Cameroon 2022. One reason is that authoritarian states don’t have to account to their citizenry for such a large outlay of taxpayers’ money. Also, they can easily suppress any protests by restive populations taking advantage of the global media scrutiny. Cameroon has faced protests and a civil war since 2015 by English speakers charging discrimination and marginalization by a French-speaking 49-year dictatorship. There hasn’t been a word from CAF about this reality.
But it is equally distressing how CAF and Afcon have bought into a corporatist vision. The official name of the tournament now includes that of an oil company, Total. This is unprecedented for continental cups. CAF’s current president is a South African dollar billionaire, Patrick Motsepe. At his election, unopposed, in 2021 he “emphasized the need to harness the private sector in each country rather than address CAF’s serious governance issues.” He also proposed an African Super League of 20, modeled after the MLS in the United States (key distinction: no promotions and relegations) of the continent’s 20 top clubs — the equivalent of a proposal among European clubs was dropped after a fan rebellion last year. But even more significant has been the decision to play the last years of the African Super Cup, since 2019, a match between the African Champions League title holders and the CAF Confederation Cup (the equivalent of the Europa League) in the Gulf, all in Qatar, outside the continent. This marks African football as a latecomer to a trend already normalized elsewhere in football and in other sports like cricket, golf, and tennis, where major tournaments or finals are played in Saudi Arabia or Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Who says, given the direction of Motsepe’s presidency (he is enthusiastically supported by FIFA President Gianni Infantino), that this is also not the corporatist future of the African Cup of Nations?
Image: Jake Brown, Creative Commons License, via Flickr.