Saturday, January 12, 2008

How to Solve the Cup of Nations Dilemma

As many readers know, the African Cup of Nations' scheduling conundrum has provided me with much blogging material.

Today, an article from Football365's Justin Zehmke, who wonders where the problem lies. It's a scathing criticism of FIFA and it's leader, Sepp Blatter, accusing the world governing body of not caring about African football.

It's quite a passionate piece and required reading for followers of the African game. Have a go here or at the link above.

As we find ourselves on the eve of another African Cup of Nations, familiar problems are raising their heads. As the respective European leagues enter the business end of their seasons, African nations are faced with a familiar struggle to pry their players from the understandably reluctant grasp of their day-to-day employers.

With no clear policy forcing clubs into releasing their players, causing a situation where the likes of Samuel Eto'o will only join their national sides a week after the African based players, the competition already has the familiar taint of anti-climax about it.

I place the blame fully at the feet of FIFA, one of the most venal, money-grubbing organisations ever to get its hands on a sporting code. African football is only paid any attention around FIFA election times, when Sepp Blatter and his cronies make hollow promise after hollow promise, only to be forgotten about almost immediately.

The competition was originally scheduled during the European season because nobody in power saw any benefit in doing otherwise. In previous decades having an African player at a European club was a rarity, and in any case, they were never important players. Africa was allowed to plod on in its own fashion, with the competition receiving far less financial support from FIFA than its European counterpart.

Technically, of course, the competition is the responsibility of CAF (Confederation of African Football) but this organisation has learnt the lessons of corruption and mismanagement that so typify its parent organisation very well.

FIFA is notoriously opposed to change, most likely through fear that any rocking of the boat will expose the viper's nest of shady deals, rigged elections and stolen funds that make up its history. A case in point being Blatter's almost hysterical refusal to contemplate the introduction of technology to ensure fair results. Doing this would remove much of the scope to engineer competitions for maximum revenue. One thinks back to the extraordinary run of refereeing decisions that saw South-Korea reach the semi-finals of the Japorea World Cup.

Only a naif and eternal optimist would think that this was not a concerted marketing push to expand advertising revenue in Asia. I will eat my own foot if an African side fails to reach at least the semi-finals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa due to some 'positive' refereeing decisions.

Thus calls to have the AFCON moved to a more convenient time, outside of the European league window, have fallen on deaf ears. The competition is not a big money spinner for the decision makers in world football, and in their shortsightedness they fail to envision it ever being one. After all, in the eyes of most Europeans, Africans are all far too impoverished to warrant being advertised to.

But football itself, regardless of who administrates it, is essentially dynamic and has refused to conform to expectations. Once European clubs realised that the stereotype of the African footballer as all flair and no application was patently untrue, players from the continent started flooding the European leagues.

There is hardly a big club left without a spine of African talent and, were one to compile an accurate list of the fifty best players in Europe, African players would undoubtedly occupy at least 25% of said list. And herein lies the current dilemma.

The AFCON has often been played in appalling conditions. Bumpy pitches, sweltering heat and poor facilities lead to injuries and, with some of the nations' FA's in dire financial straits, the chances of clubs getting compensation for a player injured on national duty are extremely slim, if not nonexistent.

Thus we have a situation where star players pick up a phantom injury days before the competition. One remembers Michael Essien being unable to play for Ghana in the 2006 tournament only to feature in a Chelsea match, apparently fully fit, less than 24-hours after Ghana's exit from the tournament.

As much as these types of deception rankle, they are completely understandable. After all, the club pay the player's wages regardless of whether he is injured or not.

Playing the tournament outside the European season will solve this problem instantly and have the added benefit of garnering a European audience that isn't distracted by their respective local leagues. This in turn will boost the revenue generated by the tournament, enabling it to become bigger and better.

This brings us to another issue. How do we get the world to take notice of the competition? The quality of football has often been poor, both through the absence of star players and because of some highly suspect selection policies.

After South Africa had won the competition at the first try following readmission, a strange thing happened to the selection of the national squad. The best players were not being selected and there was fierce opposition to including European-based players in the national squad. The reason for this? Money.

The continent's showpiece tournament has been corrupted into nothing more than a cattle market. In a country like South Africa, where the big clubs like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates have immense amounts of clout with the national FA, the competition became a money-making opportunity.

Clubs would want their own players selected in the knowledge that the tournament would be teeming with international scouts looking for the next bright prospect. The competition became a seller's paradise. And, as there is no money to be made from a player already at a European club, the quality of the national side was sacrificed in pursuit of a quick transfer buck.

Conversely this has had the effect of devaluing the local leagues but that is an issue for another day.

South Africa is certainly not the only country on the continent to suffer this problem and, unlike the reluctance of clubs to release players, this problem cannot be solved by rescheduling the competition, although it may be mitigated slightly.

Despite all these issues we should certainly still look forward to a fascinating tournament and some exciting football. It will be difficult however, not to imagine what a bit of common sense and a commitment to the African game from those in power could do to make it even better.

Well, there's always Angola in 2010.

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