Ben Gray: The Africa Cup of Nations should be cherished, not perceived as an inconvenience to Europe’s richest clubs

The 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations got underway this weekend and, after just four matches, the tournament has already delivered plenty of memorable moments.

From hosts Côte d’Ivoire kicking off with a win, to minnows Mozambique coming agonisingly close to beating Egypt, before Cape Verde did actually defeat Ghana in stoppage time, this year’s competition promises to have it all.

However, despite AFCON’s rich history, prestige and tradition, the tournament still is not taken seriously nor treated with the respect it deserves.

Two years ago, long-standing Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis declared that the club would no longer sign African players, unless they signed a waiver confirming they will not play at the African Cup of Nations.

Obviously, this is quite an extreme example, that never actually came to pass, but it does generally encapsulate the Euro-centric view towards a biannual competition that takes place in the middle of the club season.

In an attempt to combat this issue, CAF moved the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, hosted by Egypt, to the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, taking place in June and July for the very first time, in line with the Euros and Copa América.

However, this caused a multitude of issues, starting with the fact the dates were altered last minute to avoid clashing with Ramaḍān.

Once the football started, fixtures were played in extremely-high temperatures, especially those not kicking off at night, with a measly 1.96 goals scored per match, with 44% of games ending either 0-0 or 1-0.

That 1.96 figure is the third-lowest goals-per-game figure in AFCON history (post-1992), with 2002 (1.5) and, curiously enough, the most-recent edition in 2022 (1.92) the only ones to witness lower tallies.

Interestingly, the next tournament will take place in summer, with Morocco hosting in June and July of 2025, ramping up their preparations to co-host the World Cup five years later.

This will give us a larger sample size as to the effects of staging an Africa Cup of Nations in summer but, regardless, this is simply not feasible in the vast majority of African countries.

For many, it’s simply too hot, while for this year’s hosts Ivory Coast, June is the start of the rainy season, which was particularly extreme last year, so staging a tournament would be nigh-on impossible.

Setting all of these challenges aside, CAF should basically be able to do what they want.

All of their stars never get to play in Africa, hoovered up by European clubs and only visible to people who live in the biggest continent on the planet via TV screens.

Having a month-longer tournament which’ll see these players play between three and seven matches every two years, seems like a pretty fair compromise, even if their club is without a key performer for a few weeks.

What makes the Africa Cup of Nations so great?

As alluded too, you’re unlikely to find the highest-quality or most free-scoring football at an Africa Cup of Nations, certainly in the early rounds, but trust me, this is all part of the charm.

The beauty comes in the range, depth and variety of teams and players.

Of CAF’s 54 members, just 10 (18.5%) have never qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations, all of whom are true minnows:

Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Eswatini, Lesotho, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, Somalia and South Sudan, in case you were wondering.

To compare, of UEFA’s current 54 members, 20 (37%) have never made it to the Euros, which is a fair comparison, given that both have been 24-team tournaments for three successive edition, including this year.

While this expanded format means all the traditional heavyweights will always be there, it’s also allowed minnows Burundi, Madagascar, Mauritania, the Comoros Islands and The Gambia to debut since 2019.

24-team tournaments are never ideal, with four best-ranked third-place teams sneaking through, but AFCON is just the right size now to create a competition that’s both exciting but also accessible to all... well most.

This broad range is very much reflected in the squad lists of the 24 teams competing this month.

Of course, it’s superstars like Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen, Sadio Mané, Achraf Hakimi and Riyāḍ Maḥrez who grab all the headlines but, to these players, this tournament means everything.

In a recent quick-fire interview with goal, Mohammed Kudus was asked whather he’d rather win the UEFA Champions League or AFCON and, without hesitation, chose national team glory.

Given that he plays for West Ham and a generally hapless Ghana, neither seems likely in the near-future, but Kudus isn’t alone in this feeling, with Mané and Maḥrez exclaiming similar after recent triumphs.

Away from the household names, almost 650 players have been selected to take part at the ongoing tournament and, for the overwhelming majority, this is their rare moment in the spotlight.

Iván Salvador Edú, who put Guinea-Bissau 1-0 up against Nigeria on Sunday, plies his trade for Miedź Legnica in the obscurity that is the Polish second-tier.

Perusing the 24 squad lists, you’ll find countless players with similar stories, including Tanzania’s Ben Starkie of Ilkeston Town (England’s seventh-tier), Namibia’s Petrus Shitembi of Kuching City (Malaysia Super League) and Mozambique’s Stanley Ratifo of Pforzheim (Germany’s fifth-tier), on top of the hundres of domestic-based players scattered across Africa.

To put it succinctly, the Africa Cup of Nations is for all and, in a world of Super Leagues and clubs worth billions, this is worth both protecting and celebrating.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".