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Africa Cup of Nations 2022: European football sees Afcon as an inconvenience – but it is a crucial competition

The i 1/5/2022 Daniel Storey

Over the last few weeks, the potential postponement of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) has been met with predictable joy from Premier League supporters. The reaction of the European media is perennially viewed through the prism of self-interest because that is what its audience demands.

“What might Afcon mean for [insert name of major European club]” read the headlines. African football’s biggest event may be viewed as a frustrating distraction, but you cannot doubt its relevance. The status of this tournament, and the progress of certain countries through it, has the power to define title races across the world.

Last week, Fifa president Gianni Infantino added his own voice to the campaign for the suspension of Afcon 2022 that is scheduled to begin in less than a month’s time and has already been suspended once. Infantino is effectively supporting a cabal of major European clubs who wish to bar their own players travelling to Cameroon. A meeting of the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) executive committee ended with no agreement, but Infantino reportedly has the support of a small but influential minority within CAF.

It’s hard not to be cynical here; let’s call it 100 times bitten, shy by default. If this push for repeated postponement purely reflected serious concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in the light of the rise of the Omicron variant, all international travel for elite football over the early months of 2022 would be at risk.

But there is little appetite for Uefa’s club competitions to be suspended and March’s international break will presumably remain in the calendar. And Fifa had no problem organising and overseeing a new international tournament – the recent Arab Cup in Qatar – when it suited.

Instead, the suspicion is that Afcon is again being mistreated, viewed as an inconvenience by a game that is very happy to venerate African footballers when they arrive in Europe but is content to pretend the continent’s football doesn’t exist at any other time. It’s only the second-largest continent in the world that contains 25 per cent of all Fifa nations and this is only their flagship event, after all.

Make no mistake: CAF cannot cope with the financial impact of a second Afcon postponement in two years. In 2020, African football’s governing body reported a financial loss for the second successive year and is projecting a net deficit for 2021. At a rough estimate, the combined annual revenue for every African football club sits at around $400m (£302m), just short of what Borussia Dortmund – listed 12th in Europe by that ranking – posted in their last annual statement.

Afcon is vital in addressing that financial abyss. It’s not just the broadcasting revenue and sponsorship deals but the trickle-down economics of the tournament. Player sales post-Afcon can provide African clubs with funds to ensure their long-term futures. Since the 2019 edition, Tunisian Wajdi Kachrida has joined Salernitana, Hicham Boudaoui joined Nice and DR Congo’s Meschak Elia joined Young Boys. These players have precious few opportunities to impress a European audience; this tournament can be a game-changer for individuals and their clubs.

We are quick to express our displeasure at how club football has been skewed towards the elite, an irrevocable food chain in which several apex predators pick off the weak and the rich become richer. But if we are to care at all about football being more equal, or about the health of the game on a global scale, we must seek to protect those nations on those continents when they need it most.

The fear is that Afcon will fall again, or be moved to Qatar as yet another favour for a nation state that has benefitted from many. That would be another marker of a game that protects the interests of the few, not the many. The finances of African football stand on the brink. That’s far more important than which elite club will be without which of their megastars for six weeks.

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