KAMPALA- Ivorian legend Didier Drogba is one of the first high profile figures to give Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s proposal of a four-year Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) cycle real strong backing.
Speaking at a seminar in Rabat, Morocco on the development of African football a week ago, Infantino whinged that football had not progressed as expected, and that he wanted to “project African football to the top of the world.”
Among his proposals is that Afcon be held every four years instead of every two as it is today. He also wants to create a pan-African Super League with 20 permanent member clubs.
Former Elephants skipper, Drogba, believes Afcon every four years could actually increase the flavour and rarity of the tournament, and that such a schedule would protect African footballers, who play in Europe.
“I think we’re going to have to get to that point (playing in the Afcon every four years) because the African player is quite disadvantaged in relation to his club, and given that there are a lot of African players now playing in Europe, it complicates things a bit,” Drogba told the media.
“Already at the time when we played in the African Cup of Nations, which was in January, (a player) to leave for the national team was to jeopardise his place in the starting line-up.
“It was really complicated, not to mention the weather conditions. So it’s going to be an interesting debate and I hope I can contribute to,” Drogba stressed.
Afcon 2021 will be played in January-February instead of June-July. The latter would have favoured European clubs and African players that play there since their season would be off.
Egypt 2019 was the first finals played mid-year after changing from January-February. Hosts Cameroon requested to have the 2021 edition edition in January-February citing harsh weather conditions mid-year, after which the next will revert to June-July.
While Drogba might be coming off as the face of Infantino’s drive, African FA presidents have largely maintained a low profile since listening in to the Fifa boss’ proposals in Rabat.
Asked of his opinion on the four-year Afcon proposal, Fufa president Moses Magogo could not give much.
“This matter is still under debate by the Caf Executive upon advice by Fifa,” Magogo told SCORE, “I am limited to make my opinion public at the moment when I belong to the executive forum where I will give my opinion.”
Explaining his proposal, Infantino said revenue could rise up to six-fold for a four-yearly continental championship, and become a must-see event “not only for Africa but the world.”
“The CAN (Afcon) generates twenty times less than the Euros. Having a CAN every two years, is that good at the commercial level? probed Infantino, without explaining how a four-year cycle Afcon would shoot financial figures up.
“Has this developed the infrastructure? Think about spending it every four years,” he added.
Caf’s argument for a two-year cycle Afcon has been that it allows for rapid infrastructural developments in host countries.
Case for players’ health
Andrew Orsatti, the communications director and spokesman for football’s international players’ union FIFPro, gave The SCORE his thoughts on why Fifa and Infantino want Africa to go the four-year way.
“The match calendar is a fragmented mess,” said Orsatti, “From the players’ perspective, it would reduce the number of comps - physical and mental load from a health and safety standpoint - and not put them at odds with their clubs on such a frequent basis.
“Competition for dates is causing great tension. Something has to give.” Orsatti added: “African football does not stop still. It will evolve and, if Afcon happened every four years, surely there are healthy proposals to stimulate the intervening years.
“It requires a holistic solution. Problem I see is that competing interests have led to a fragmented international match calendar. It’s for Caf to solve, too, not just Fifa.
“It requires all stakeholders. These competitions will not live up to expectations if the players arrive on these stages suffering from burnout. That is the last thing we want for the product. Put player performance first to ensure they can deliver on the big stage.”
However, that Infantino is proposing more new competitions in his African grand plan, and that Europe now play a Uefa Nation League in the summer, Orsatti’s otherwise good points on players’ health somewhat come off as only being considered when it comes to Afcon.
How then do you, then, do you account for players exhaustions in all those pre-season tournaments for commercial purposes in South East Asia, far East, Australia, USA, and the Uefa Nations League? An Afcon every two years, surely, cannot be the problem.
Fifa’s other reason for a four-year cycle Afcon is it would be in harmony with the World Cup, European Championship, Copa America and Asia (the latter two also changed to four-year even numbers editions recently).
Diouf for current cycle
However, some voices on the continent question the real agenda of the proposal, which was born during Fifa’s six-month governance of Caf under the world body Secretary General Fatma Samoura.
While Drogba buys into Infantino’s pitch, Senegalese legend El Hadji Diouf is just fine with the way things are currently.
“I think every two years is fine for the Africa Cup of Nations, although we are yet to settle on the right period to hold the tournament,” the two-time African Footballer of the Year told a Senegalese Press Agency.
“Fifa president only made a proposal. Someone now has to decide whether the plan is okay or not. Personally, I think a four-year Afcon would be too long. Infantino is the president of world’s football, but Africa should be able to guide her own destiny,” Diouf added.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a BBC World Football reporter and InsideWorldFootball.com columnist, believes the proposal would erode African football values.
“A four-year Afcon,” he said, “Is totally unacceptable to me and anyone that cares about African football. The Africa Cup of Nations, which began in 1957, is older that the European Championship, which began in 1960.
“The biannual tournament is crucial to the ecosystem of African football and a change to its timing would do untold damage.”
On the pan-African Super League with 20 permanent member clubs proposal, Infantino did not elaborate what this meant for the current Caf Champions League and Confederation Cup.
“I want to create a real pan-African league that would feature 20-24 clubs with a maximum of maybe two clubs per country that would still play in their national leagues but that would play during the year so we can really crown the club champions of Africa,” he said.
Infantino, who talked of creating a group of professional referees, at least 20, who will be financed and contracted by Fifa in partnership with Caf, also said they would mobilise at least $1b to invest in a stadium in each of the 54 African member associations.
•Afcon be held every four years instead of every two
•Pan-African Super League of 20 permanent member clubs, with others qualifying through regional tournaments
•$1b investment in building stadiums in 54 African member associations
•Take 20 of the best African Fifa referees, professionalise them, and give them permanent, professional contracts
•Creation of a women’s World Nations’ League, more frequent youth championships and more youth categories