For the major international tournaments around the world, the timings are essential to their success. A closed window in terms of other competitions provides a captive audience. The European Championships and World Cup competing in Summer and on years that will never clash results in a global audience of football fans following every kick of the prestigious competitions. Despite the magnitude of sport throughout Africa and the passion of those directly involved in the game from the continent, the Africa Cup of Nations runs through from January to February of this year, directly through an important period in the New Year throughout Europe’s top domestic competitions.
As a result, many of the stars of the tournament will be forced to miss a number of crucial domestic games for their clubs. Throughout the biggest leagues in the world, the fans, without direct connections to the tournament, will most likely find themselves casually following results; a stark contrast to the followings exhibited throughout a European Championships or World Cup.
Initially, players were to be made available to their countries from December 27th, resulting in an almost 6-week absence form their teams. After this was overruled by World Leagues Forum writing to FIFA, players were able to spend the New Year period with their clubs before joining their National teams on January 3rd.
After originally being scheduled for the Summer of 2021, the postponement was made due to unfavourable weather in the host country of Cameroon, who would be experiencing their rainy season at the time of the tournament. This would be the country’s first hosting of the tournament n 50 years.
With the 2019 edition of the tournament, won by Algeria, was held in the European summer months of June and July, the return to January and February has brought with it an unwelcome disruption to the European domestic leagues. The change of dates has seen 16 of the 20 clubs losing players with 38 in total being released by their clubs.
For some, the list of absentees may be relatively short and immediately coverable with other members of the squad. For others, such as title contenders Liverpool, they will lose Naby Keita and Said Mane as well as the talismanic Mo Salah.
The clash, for some teams, provides them with a significant period of time without some of their strongest players, a matter that has caused considerable controversy in recent times as clubs, who pay the wages of players, are reluctant to release their employees to the tournament. This year, there was a major issue when Senegal accused Premier League side Watford of not releasing Ismaila Sarr for the tournament that started on the 9th January. The London-based side insisted that their star is not fit to play and was still recovering from a knee injury however the tensions were mounting in the days leading up to the competition with Senegal accusing the club of not releasing their star striker.
Coverage of the AFCON
With the clash of dates with the top domestic leagues in Europe, the opportunities for extensive coverage have been distinctly limited. Contractual obligations with major networks for the domestic competitions leaves a minimal amount of air time for other forms of football. Column inches subsequently suffer in comparison to domestic leagues in the country of print and the exposure of the tournament therefore pales into insignificance when compared to comparative continental tournaments.
In reality, the Copa America provides the closest comparison however, with the reputation of major nations such as Brazil and Argentina on the global stage, there is a considerable argument to be made that South America’s equivalent competition carries with it considerably more respect and prestige.
The matter was brought into question by Ian Wright before the tournament began who labelled the coverage of the competition as being “completely tinged with racism”. The lack of opportunity for the AFCON to be held in the same regard as other similar competitions held around the world has largely been attributed to exposure, a principle that has seen a significant boost with AFCON’s partnership with Sky.
In 2021, the AFCON has seen all 52 games broadcast live on Sky Sports in a deal that has added to Sky’s extensive football coverage to be shown in the UK and Ireland. The 33rd edition of the competition, hosted by Cameroon, has seen extended squads of up to 28 players in the battle against COVID-19, allowing coaches to rotate through their squad in the case of any positive cases throughout the tournament.
Away from the pitch, the tournament threatened to be overshadowed by a terrible accident outside of one of the stadiums that saw fans crushed and at least 8 people killed. Supporters were trying to gain access to the last-16 match (which saw a limited number of tickets due to COVID restrictions) in the host nation’s capital city when the crush occurred.
On the pitch, the tournament saw fierce competition whittled down to two a final two of Senegal and Egypt. With 6 previous victories in the competition, including a three-peat at the turn of the millennium, Egypt, led by global superstar Mo Salah, came into the game as favourites for the title.
Standing in their way was Salah’s Liverpool teammate Said Mane and Senegal, looking to go one better than their runner-up position in 2019 and claim their first ever AFCON title.
In the end, the Merseyside club would find themselves in the spotlight of football’s elite once more as Sadio Mane stepped forward to score the winning penalty after a tense 0-0 to claim a maiden tournament victory for Senegal.
The Africa Cup of Nations has once again produced excitement and controversy throughout its passionate and eccentric showcasing of the best football on the continent. The provision created by Sky to showcase the competition on its’ platform has helped to expose viewers in the United Kingdom to the drama and excitement that the tournament has to offer. While this coverage can definitely be moderated for future editions to include the detailed analysis that accompanies regular Premier League matches, this landmark opportunity to view the tournament will has set a precedent for future tournaments.