In Depth

Africa Cup of Nations: is there a more disrespected tournament?

Build-up to the continental showpiece was overshadowed by player call-up debate

The 33rd Africa Cup of Nations kicked off on Sunday with hosts Cameroon defeating Burkina Faso 2-1 in the opening match of group A. At the Olembé Stadium in Yaoundé, a multicultural opening ceremony marked the hosting of the continent’s most prestigious international men’s football tournament.

There was “relief and atmosphere” as Cameroon started their campaign in style, said Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian. The tournament was two-and-a-half years later than planned, but “few in Yaoundé would be bothered by that”. 

It’s been 50 years since Cameroon last hosted the continental showpiece – a “lifetime in footballing terms”, said ESPN’s Lindsay du Plessis. And the young population of the Central African nation will have “only heard about that 1972 tournament in whispered memories passed down through the generations”.

With 24 teams competing, AFCON’s opening stage features six groups of four followed by the knockout rounds which start on 23 January. The 60,000-capacity Olembé Stadium, which opened in September last year, will host the final on 6 February.  

‘Less than helpful’

The build-up has been overshadowed by a number of issues, including the threat of Covid-19 and of safety fears due to civil war. Conflicts between separatists and security forces is “intensifying” in Cameroon, “yet has received little coverage in the build-up”, said Kieran Guilbert in The Independent.

Ideally, the discussion leading up to the event, “would have centred on potential winners, surprise packages and stand-out players”, Wilson said in The Guardian. However, with the event taking place during the European season, the discussion, “in England at least”, has centred on “which Premier League clubs will be worst affected?”. 

It’s “clearly frustrating” for clubs to lose key players halfway through a season, especially when Covid outbreaks are hitting squads, said Robert Kidd in Forbes. But some clubs have been “less than helpful” in releasing players for international duty.

‘Can you imagine the furore?’

The player call-up debate has led to many people asking the question: does the Africa Cup of Nations get the respect it deserves? Established in 1957, it is the second-oldest continental football tournament, older than the European Championship.

Ian Wright believes the media coverage has been “completely tinged with racism”, CNN reported. Is there a more disrespected tournament, the former Arsenal and England striker asked on social media. “Why is this tournament constantly getting so much flak?”

A number of players were asked if they would honour call-ups to their national teams and Wright said had it been England’s stars there would have been uproar. “You are getting journalists asking players... players getting asked if they will be honouring the call-ups to their national teams,” he said. “Imagine if that was an English player representing the Three Lions. Can you imagine the furore?”

Disrespect for Africa

When Ajax striker Sébastien Haller was asked if he would join up with Ivory Coast or stay with his club, he reacted angrily. “This question shows disrespect for Africa,” he said. “Would this question ever be asked to a European player ahead of the Euros?”

Cameroon international Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa said it wasn’t an easy decision to step away from Napoli’s title charge, but he has the full backing of the Italian club, ESPN reported. 

“It’s always delicate for a player to leave his team, but the club have to understand that the Africa Cup of Nations is an important thing when you’re an African player, and they have to respect that as well,” he told the broadcaster. “In my situation, the club didn’t have a problem, even though they know that I’m an important component of the team.”

Pure and passionate

Everything Wright said about the Africa Cup of Nations was “eloquent and absolutely spot on”, said Eurosport’s Pete Sharland. There remains to this day an “inherent conscious bias” about African players and that “spills over to the way AFCON is viewed by media and fans”.

The Cup of Nations has always existed “amid a battle for recognition, politically and in football”, Wilson said. And a “habitual complaint” of European clubs is that the Cup of Nations comes every two years. “That is a matter both of history and financial necessity.” 

One thing the football world should never complain about is how “pure” and “passionate” the Africa Cup of Nations is, Sharland said. It is “arguably the best tournament” international football has and it is the sort of tournament that “makes you fall back in love with the game”.

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