One month ago the Cameroon Football Association confirmed that the 2021 African Cup of Nations will be held in January instead of July because the rainy weather conditions during the summer months are not conducive for playing.[i]The announcement produced severe backlash from media outlets globally who argued that this rescheduling would be disruptive to the sport. One news source even declared that “a major tournament must have fixed times. Once a date is picked, it should be stuck to like glue.”[ii] Bromberger argued that soccer and sacred ceremonies share several fundamental properties including temporal and rhythmic affinities. “Competitions are scheduled according to a regular and cyclical calendar of events, which reaches its peak at certain stages of the football year.”[iii] This break from ritualistic structuring, however, is not the sole explanation for the widespread reaction to the African Cup of Nations moving dates.
Since its conception in 1957 until 2017, the African Cup of Nations was held in January every other year. In fact, the 2019 competition in Egypt has been the sole tournament that occurred during the summer.[iv] Therefore, Cameroon’s decision is not a break from ritual, it’s a return to it. Instead, the underlying issue with moving the tournament is rooted in a time conflict with the Premier League. Premier League teams will lose their African players for up to six weeks during the middle of their season, which coach Jurgen Kloop called “a catastrophe” because Liverpool’s two star attacking players, Mohamad Salah from Egypt and Sadio Mane from Senegal, are almost certain to be involved in the 2021 competition. Other high-profile African players including the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamyang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire as well as Manchester’s Riyad Mahrez of Algeria are also likely to play in the African Cup of Nations.[v]From the African perspective this change is favorable because players will not have to compete in hostile climatic conditions, but this outlook is hardly considered because soccer is viewed through a Eurocentric lens.
A BBC sport interview (Interview) with a Premier League manager and two African players who competed in Europe provides further insight into this tension between European club play and African national play. Harry Redknapp, who played for England and has managed nine British teams since 1983, stated that this rescheduling of the African Cup of Nations will put him and other managers off from signing African players on the basis that they will be too tired after the cup to play at their full potential for their European club team.[vi] Gabriel Zakuni, former Democratic Republic of the Congo captain, and Patrick Suffo, former Cameroon striker and African Cup of Nations winner, understand Redknapp’s argument, but explain the importance of moving the tournament to January to make “the best African Cup of Nations for African football.” When asked whether this move would harm the career of African players, Zakuni and Suffo acknowledge that these players are at a disadvantage from a European perspective but assert that the African Cup of Nations is a source of pride for its competitors.[vii] That is, from the African point of view, moving the cup is a necessary sacrifice for the wellbeing of the African continent, a stance which directly threatens the Eurocentricity of soccer.
European club leagues routinely attract the most skilled players and generate twenty times more revenue than the tournaments hosted by the Confederation of African football.[viii] Although Europe is the economic engine that finances the global game, the mindset that Europe owns the game is dangerous in terms of attendance and interest in local competitions as well as the development of players. Soccer is weaker if western Europe has a monopoly on talent, wealth, and power as it does now. Malcom Gladwell stated in his Revisionist History podcast episode “My Little One Hundred Million” that soccer is a “weak-link game,” or that the strength of a team is only as strong as the weakest player on the pitch.[ix] This theory can be more broadly applied to the sport of soccer as a whole. The strength of soccer should be evaluated on successes of its less prestigious leagues, not the elite European ones. Soccer will be the most robust when African, American, and Chinese players have incentive to develop, train, and play for their home country because there will be more talent and competition globally. We must stop treating Europe as the home of soccer and instead think about it as the summit of a mountain, which is only high if its base is strong.
[i] “Cameroon Confirms,” The Guardian.
[ii] Salah, “Africa Cup Switch,” Arab News.
[iii] Bromberger, “Football as World-View,” in French Cultural, 307.
[iv] Smith, “It’s Time,” The New York Times.
[v] Brewin, “Jürgen Klopp,” The Guardian.
[vi] “AFCON 2021,” audio file.
[vii] “AFCON 2021,” audio file.
[viii] Smith, “It’s Time,” The New York Times.
[ix] Gladwell, “My Little,” audio file.
“AFCON 2021: How the Tournament’s Date Change Will Disrupt the Premier League.” Audio file. BBC Sport. 2020. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p080g794.
Brewin, John. “Jürgen Klopp Says Africa Cup of Nations Move Is a ‘catastrophe’ for Liverpool.” The Guardian. Last modified January 17, 2020. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/jan/17/jurgen-klopp-africa-cup-of-nations-move-january-catastrophe-liverpool-mane-salah-keita.
Bromberger, Christian. “Football as World-View and as Ritual.” In French Cultural Studies. Previously published in Sage Journals 6, no. 18 (October 1, 1995): 293-311. Accessed February 25, 2020. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/095715589500601803.
“Cameroon Confirms 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Will Be Played at Start of Year.” The Guardian. Last modified January 15, 2020. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/jan/15/cameroon-confirm-2021-africa-cup-of-nations-will-be-played-at-start-of-year.
“Fifa President Infantino Proposes Africa Cup of Nations Be Held Every Four Years.” BBC Sport. Last modified February 1, 2020. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/51341058.
Gladwell, Malcom. “My Little One Hundred Million.” Audio file. 2016. Accessed February 25, 2020. http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/06-my-little-hundred-million.
Panja, Tariq. “FIFA Takes Control of Soccer in Africa, Where Sport Is in Chaos.” The New York Times. Last modified June 19, 2019. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/sports/fifa-takes-control-of-soccer-in-africa-where-the-sport-is-in-chaos.html.
Salah, Mohammad. “Africa Cup Switch to Winter Sends a Chill through European Leagues.” Arab News. Last modified January 21, 2021. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1616321/sport.
Smith, Rory. “It’s Time to Ask What Africa Needs.” The New York Times. Last modified January 25, 2020. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/sports/soccer/rory-smith-africa-soccer.html.
This is a terrific reflection, Emma. You call attention to many of the assumptions that undergird the kind of critiques of AFCON really well, and the documentation of the piece is terrific. And TJ, the point about the difference in responses to the Qatar rescheduling is a really good one. These are all excellent questionings and framings, and I hope some will become part of your final projects as well. Thank you!
I find it telling that so much of the reservations around moving the AFCON to January are coming from European managers and European-based media. The backlash surrounding the change is coming from a place of extreme privilege: African players (supposedly) won’t be able to perform at their peak for the European clubs interested in scouting them, so the decision is receiving resistance. European clubs view Black and brown players recruited from the global South as mainly vessels to bring in money and attention. This preemptive reluctance to recruit African players following a big tournament is generally not seen in Europe, where many players embark on big money transfers following the likes of the World Cup and the European Cup with far less hesitation. Like you said, this only serves to emphasize that global soccer should operate on a schedule and at a pace that aligns with European perspectives and plans, which further harms soccer programs in areas of the world whose players do their work largely outside of the global stage.
Additionally, the idea that Europe “owns the game” serves only to trivialize the work that African players (and players from elsewhere in the global South) simply because of the disparity in attendance, funding, and broadcasting rights. Recent trends in the commercialization of soccer hurt less well-known leagues and programs, whose resources are significantly more limited, making it even more difficult to train and produce the kinds of players that are scouted by top clubs.
The response to this schedule change is especially interesting, as it is not the only high-profile change to a major tournament schedule to be released: the 2022 men’s World Cup, hosted by Qatar, is scheduled to take place between November and December. Much of the controversy surrounding this change is related to human rights issues, the high expected cost of the tournament, and other cultural and political issues rather than the fact that the tournament will take place mid-season for most top leagues. As a matter of fact, the English Premier League introduced a mid-season winter break this season in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. [i] The difference in responses following a change to the World Cup, where a number of European nations will be competing (and are often favorites to win) and the backlash surrounding an alteration to a competition of exclusively African sides that receives generally little attention from the soccer world is a striking reflection of who holds the majority of influence in global football.
“Premier League Winter Break: When It Will Be Introduced, How Long It Lasts & Everything You Need to Know | Goal.Com.” Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.goal.com/en/news/premier-league-winter-break-when-introduced-how-long/c91eyscta02a1033jnx3vm7d2.
Tj I really enjoyed reading this and think its a seriously interesting and relevant topic to choose. I agree with many of your views but am also conflicted by some. I agree with your perspective on how this bias against African players, as a result of this debate, reflects a degree of ownership among European Clubs and do not think that this is a fair way to handle the Afcon schedule. That said, I think that the Afcon organisers could figure out a solution that does not involve hosting the tournament in January. I do understand the perspective that European clubs are dictating the rest of world football, however, also believe that given their standing and quality – a degree of sympathy must be adopted when considering why they are able to influence the rest of world football in the way they do. I think a sensible solution for the Premier League could be to align their (newly imposed) winter break with the proposed Afcon dates in order to enable African players to play in both. Obviously no solution is perfect, but any one that disadvantages African players in the transfer market as a result of the Afcon should not be taken.