Football: Should the African Cup of Nations be held every four years?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon

By Alexis Billebault
Posted on Monday, 13 December 2021 12:01, updated on Monday, 10 January 2022 14:49

The African Cup of Nations trophy. © Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) supports FIFA's plan to hold the World Cup every two years, which could affect - for better or worse - how often the African Cup of Nations takes place.

Will FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, change everything? They say they want to hold the World Cup every two years, which would revolutionise the world of football.

The project – which is led by Frenchman Arsène Wenger, former Arsenal manager – is already well underway. It has received the support of several confederations (Asia, North America, Central America and the Caribbean) as well as, on 26 November in Cairo, that of the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

However, one question in particular, which Infantino asked back in March 2020, is bothering the football world. During a seminar held in Salé, Morocco, the Swiss had questioned a change in the calendar of the African Cup of Nations (CAN).

“More viable and more attractive”

“I propose holding the African Cup of Nations every four years, in order to make it more commercially viable and more attractive on a global level,” he said in front of the heads of African federations.

Never short of financial arguments, the world football boss added: “The African Cup of Nations generates 20 times less financial revenue than the Euro. Does it make sense, commercially speaking, for it to take place every two years? Has it developed the necessary infrastructure? Consider the possibility of holding it every four years.”

The CAN generates a revenue of around €45m. By comparison, Euro 2016 in France made a profit of around €1.9bn.

Infantino’s proposal provoked a number of reactions, most of them hostile in Africa. Patrice Motsepe, the South African president of CAF, reiterated his attachment to the current calendar, while making sure not to offend his European friend by rejecting it. Furthermore, the subject has not been discussed since the body last met on 26 November.

But if the World Cup were to take place every two years, which is now becoming increasingly likely, the CAN could see its periodicity called into question.

Mathurin de Chacus, president of the Benin Football Federation (FBF), feels that a period of reflection is necessary. “If the World Cup became a biennial event, we would have to think about harmonising the international calendars. Adjustments will probably be necessary, especially for confederations that hold their continental tournament every two years, like Africa. Personally, I am attached to continuing to hold the African Cup of Nations every two years, but I am not opposed to change, as I feel that the biennial World Cup is a real opportunity for African football.”

Visceral attachment

This opinion is not shared by his Togolese counterpart, Guy Kossi Akpovy, who wants the CAN to continue as it has since 1963. “This competition is highly anticipated by Africans who love football, whether they are directly involved in the final phase or not. It is a special moment for the players and coaches involved.”

In addition to Africa’s visceral attachment to its flagship competition, Akpovy points out the sporting consequences of holding this event every four years. “Africa would lose visibility at the international level. The fact that the CAN takes place every two years allows players to be noticed. It also gives small and medium-sized teams a chance to participate in a major competition, as the World Cup seems out of reach to many.”

Without naming them, Akpovy thinks in particular of Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Burundi, Madagascar, Malawi and Sierra Leone, which have managed to qualify for the 2019 and/or 2022 final phases.

Currently, five African teams are allowed to participate in the World Cup. From 2026, when the World Cup will bring together 48 teams (instead of 32 at present), the quota reserved for Africans will increase to 9 or 10. “However, we should almost always expect the same selections, the strongest ones, even if – occasionally – some so-called average selections will manage to create a surprise by qualifying. By taking place every two years, the CAN will retain all its attractiveness and mission to promote African talent, especially those who play on our continent,” says Akpovy.

The coaches are also in favour of keeping the current format. “Africa needs this competition every two years. Football on this continent needs to be alert and continue to progress. In this respect, a biennial African Cup of Nations is an essential element,” said Frenchman Patrice Neveu, Gabon’s coach.

Mali’s Mohamed Magassouba shares this opinion and – in passing – made a scathing remark about FIFA. “It gives the impression of deciding what is good or not for African football. It would never do the same thing with Europe or South America, two powerful confederations! It is up to CAF, and CAF alone, to decide the future of African football.”

Even though the CAN calendar is not expected to change for a few years, as the 2023 and 2025 editions will take place in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea respectively, the debate is clearly on.

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