Wednesday, 7 September 2011

What happened to African football?

Is it just me who recalls a time when African football, specifically the African Cup of Nations, was as exciting and intense as the Euros or Copa America? In the 90s, when  an AFCON game between Nigeria and Cameroon was just as anticipated as an England v Portugal game in the Euros. What happened to those times? African players seem to have improved, at least going by the vastly increased numbers of African players in major European leagues, but the standard of Africa’s flagship tournament has continued to steadily decline. Nowadays it seems the only full game of AFCON I can watch is the final and even then, I guess I do, out of tradition rather than massive interest.

I get the feeling maybe African football used to look good back in the day because we weren’t exposed to a lot of football. In those days, one was lucky to witness ten Premiership games a season; we never watched any other European football, apart from two selected Champions League games a week. We had football a scarcity and so our standards were low. Now we have an overload and we don’t care for sub-standard football but am sure that can’t be the only reason.

Remember this guy. He made my heart sing, especially in that one match against the Gunners
In those days, players seemed to view AFCON as a vehicle for exposure and to further their careers. They played it with a lot more commitment because they figured that such displays would get them noticed by European scouts. Most teams would line up with a maximum of three foreign based stars and they rest would be local players. I am guessing the financial gulf between the foreign and locally based players would, in itself, be incentive for the latter to play their socks off and increase their chances of going pro.

Nowadays, every team at AFCON seems to be full of foreign based players. Even Uganda will, if they qualify, have at least six stars in professional ranks, albeit mostly in Kazakhstan, Vietnam and so on. So now these players no longer view AFCON as a stage on which to show off their talent. Instead they view it as an inconvenience to them because a) There’s an injury risk given the state of African pitches and general reckless play. b) There’s the risk of losing their places in their club teams owing to their prolonged absences. c) It puts economic strain on players from poorer countries like Liberia because more often than not they end up paying accommodation and transport bills for themselves and even some of their teammates! I recall  George Weah, the only African World Footballer of the Year ever(he did this in 1995 while also winning the Ballon d’Orr and African Footballer of the year awards), footing all the bills for his entire national team, coaches included, when they played away in AFCON qualifiers!

African players also come under a lot of pressure from their foreign clubs when it comes to honoring their international commitments. Sir Alex Ferguson even warned fellow Premier League managers to be very careful when signing African players because of AFCON being held biannually, at a crucial juncture in the season (January and February) when the games come thick and fast. These players naturally tend to put the interests of their employers over their national team’s interests; and who wouldn’t?  I am pretty sure Didier Drogba would prefer winning the European Champions League with Chelsea to being an African champion with the Ivory Coast.  

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has made the long overdue decision to schedule AFCON in odd years starting 2013, so the tournament can be played in the European summer without coinciding with the Euros or the World Cup which are both played in even years. Whether this move will revive the tournament is anyone’s guess but I reckon it can’t possibly make it worse.