Congested calendar

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

The dates for the next Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco have been announced in what is becoming an increasingly crowded football schedule, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Congested calendar

 

It’s official. 

After an extra-long delay, the dates for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) to be held in Morocco have finally been announced. 

The opening match will be held on 21 December 2025 while the final is scheduled for 18 January 2026. (At first glance it looks like the tournament will last one year but look again; it’s only 29 days).

The opening match of the women’s tournament, also in Morocco, will be on 5 July 2025 with the final on 26 July.

In announcing the dates on Friday 21 June, Confederation President Patrice Motsepe alluded to the delay of the big reveal, saying it took “much longer than expected, as there were complex and at times challenging discussions with various interested parties in light of the extensive international and domestic match calendars.”

Organisers of Africa’s premier men’s and women’s international football tournaments have admitted they face a “scheduling nightmare”, highlighting issues around the workload of the continent’s elite players for club and country.

For years, African football has tried to steer clear of European football.  There are over 500 African footballers in the five big European leagues (the number is far higher if other, non-European leagues like the Middle East and China are factored in), making their participation in their country’s international tournaments logistically challenging.

The plan has consequently always been for international African matches to avoid as much as possible the European football season which is usually from August to May.

That leaves only June and July but those summer months in Africa are dreadful — extreme heat, high humidity, and heavy rains.

Still, despite concerns about the heat, the 2019 Nations Cup in Egypt was hosted in June and July that year.

But the 2022 and 2024 editions in Cameroon and Ivory Coast respectively were staged in winter, January and February — right in the middle of the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and Lique 1.

Despite CAF failing to meet its aim of aligning the past two tournaments with the European football calendar, it did decide in 2013 that AFCON be switched to being held in odd-numbered years so as not to interfere with the World Cup (it hasn’t always worked out that way. AFCON 2021 was postponed to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic). 

Not related to the point but perhaps of interest all the same: Either CAF is behind the times or is trying a bit of chicanery: it still calls the AFCON held in 2024 the 2023 AFCON.

At any rate, the problem of tightening schedules persists. Both iterations of the AFCON are held once every two years rather than once every four as is the case with most major championships organised by other confederations. However, that puts pressure on CAF to fit its competitions into an ever more crowded international calendar.

And it is getting very busy.

AFCON used to be three countries. It’s now 24.

The World Cup, once 16 nations, jumped to 24, then 32 and the next one will zoom up to 48.

The Club World Cup, once reserved for an elite seven clubs, will balloon next year to 32.

More teams mean more games, and players and coaches, not to mention fans who want to see fresh legs bouncing on the pitch, not dead limbs being dragged on the grass, are increasingly concerned and becoming vocal.

FIFA has been forced to defend its new additions to the football calendar after criticism from unions that players are being “pushed beyond their limits”. Some are calling for legal action.

Until that happens, getting back to Morocco, it last hosted the AFCON in 1988 and was chosen in 2015 but asked for the tournament to be postponed because of the Ebola virus, although CAF later decided to strip the North African nation of the hosting rights.

Their win in 1976 remains their single tournament triumph, contrasting with six World Cup appearances from 1970 when Africa had limited representation.

Egypt are the most successful nation in AFCON history, winning the tournament seven times, with Cameroon winning five times and Ghana four. 

Ivory Coast are the tournament’s current champions, having beaten Nigeria 2-1 in this year’s final.

Meanwhile, how about some more games? The date for the qualifying draw for the 2025 AFCON is set to be announced after the next meeting of CAF’s executive committee.

The meeting’s date has yet to be reported but qualifiers are expected to be held in September, October, and November this year.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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