We’re missing out when we ignore AFCON

The continental clash doesn’t get the respect and admiration it richly deserves

In December, Sebastian Haller (this season’s Champions League top scorer) was asked by his club Ajax to turn down the opportunity to represent his nation, Côte D’Ivoire, in order to play just two league games. This brought attention to an under-discussed issue: the lack of respect offered towards the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) by clubs, institutions, pundits and fans at the elite levels of European football, a disrespect that is not directed at other continental competitions. 

Haller was emphatic in his rejection of the club’s proposal, insisting in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that he would travel to Cameroon to compete in the tournament. He also questioned the club’s priorities, saying that Ajax’s request “shows the disrespect [in European football] for Africa. Would this ever have been presented to a European player towards a European Championship?”

While Haller was eventually able to represent his nation at the tournament, Watford’s in-form striker Emmanuel Dennis was entirely denied the opportunity to play for Nigeria at AFCON. The club claims that the Nigerian Football Federation missed the deadline to call Dennis up for the national team. Watford’s manager, Claudio Ranieri insisted that the decision was not out of lack of esteem for the tournament. 

“No, no, no… we respect everybody,” he said, and added that Nigeria “have a lot of players.” As an explanation for refusing Dennis the opportunity to play for his country in a major tournament, this is sorely lacking, and a European nation with the footballing pedigree of Nigeria would undoubtedly not have been dismissed so readily.

Accompanying this institutional dismissal is a similar attitude among media and some fans’ towards AFCON. Sky Sports, though they are broadcasting every game of the tournament, are only including five minutes of coverage before each game begins, and don’t even have co-commentators. This is less time and attention than the cash-strapped League of Ireland gets on their website, for a continent of 1.2 billion people.

“The dominant narrative about the tournament in Ireland and the UK appears to be that it is a farcical affair, notable only for its comedic value.”

The dominant narrative about the tournament in Ireland and the UK appears to be that it is a farcical affair, notable only for its comedic value. The most well-publicised part of the tournament so far in this part of the world was in the game between Tunisia and Mali, where referee Janny Sikazwe blew the final whistle with five minutes still to play. This incident was covered in a way that clearly implied the tournament was of low quality, with the Daily Mail writing that “few would have known Janny Sikazwe’s name prior to Wednesday’s action…but after the debacle that unfolded in Mali’s 1-0 win against Tunisia, few will ever forget it.”

Little to no hay was made of the fact that he was suffering heat stroke and had to be brought to the hospital immediately following the match. The press treated the incident as one that could never happen in a “top” tournament, despite the fact that in a La Liga match between Sevilla and Granada in April 2021, just nine months ago, the exact same type of issue occurred.

It would be disingenuous to pretend AFCON doesn’t have its issues, however. Unlike the European football that occupies our tv screens throughout most of the year, it’s clear that there is comparatively much less funding available to the teams and that it is very unevenly distributed. The pitches are not quite the slick carpets of the Premier League, there is often a large disparity in the quality of the players on display, and the intense Cameroonian heat (approximately 23-33°C in January and February) can affect the pace of games. This latter issue has become more pronounced as the knockout rounds have begun, with some running into extra time. However, these aspects, I believe, only add to the unpredictability and excitement that make AFCON so special. 

Switzerland knocking world champions France out of the Euros in the round of sixteen last year was a magnificent upset victory, but many of the results so far in AFCON 2021 (as it is technically known) have been even more unexpected. In the second round of games in the group stages, reigning champions Algeria—who entered the tournament on a 35 game unbeaten run and boast the three-time Premier League winner and former PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez—lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea, a country with a population of just over a thirtieth of Algeria’s. Equatorial Guinea’s goalscorer from that match, Esteban Obiang, plays his club football in the Spanish fourth tier, an only semi-professional league. This gives an impression of the on-paper talent disparity between the two sides, prior to Equatorial Guinea’s fantastic upset win.

“Comoros—who played their left back in goal due to a number of Covid cases and whose captain got sent off after seven minutes of play—managed to only lose 2-1 to hosts and current tournament favourites Cameroon.”

Algeria eventually finished bottom of their group, while the tournament’s second most successful nation, Ghana, were also knocked out at the group stage. Nigeria, who were the best performing team in the group stages after winning all three matches (including against Egypt, a favourite to win), were knocked out by Tunisia in the round of sixteen. Comoros—who played their left back in goal due to a number of Covid cases and whose captain got sent off after seven minutes of play—managed to only lose 2-1 to hosts and current tournament favourites Cameroon. 

Some detractors would note that several factors—the condition of the pitches, the heat the games are being played in, and the fact that the teams in most cases had only about a week before round one to prepare—acted as equalisers on the quality of the teams. This may be true to a certain extent, but I believe the explanation behind the exciting unpredictability of the tournament is more complex.

There is an unmistakable defiance and bravery shown by the players who play their club football in Africa or in the lower European tiers which is intoxicating. There is no sense whatsoever that these smaller teams or lesser-known players are simply “happy to be there”, like you might see in the early rounds of the FA Cup, for example; every one of them is playing to win. There is an aggression, an audacity, and a remarkable level of self-belief on show, visible at moments such as when Malawi’s Gabadinho Mhango scored one of the all-time great tournament goals from a seemingly impossible distance against Morocco. It doesn’t matter for which illustrious team someone plays for or the ridiculous wages another might be paid, it’s just pure football and national pride. It’s a tournament that never feels predictable, and a refreshing antidote to the modern, finance-driven European game.