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AFCON 2023: Just another international tournament or a look into the future of football?

The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2023 just ended earlier in February with the host, Ivory Coast, lifting the title for a third time after beating Nigeria in the final 2-1. This edition had some truly remarkable stories being produced, with comparative minnows such as Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde and Angola topping their respective groups, with Cape Verde and Angola making it all the way to the quarter-finals. The giants of African football such as Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia, who have seven AFCON titles between them, all faced a group stage elimination. And this is just the start of the surprises as the biggest shock performer of the entire competition was the host and eventual champions, Ivory Coast. 

The Elephants had a horrendous run in the group stages. They secured only one win against Guinea-Bissau in the opening game of the competition, and then lost to both Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, the latter of which thumped them 4-0 on home soil. And through a pure stroke of luck, Ivory Coast edged out Ghana by one point to enter the round of 16 after placing fourth overall among the third-placed teams of the group stages. Following this form, coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked before the knockout stage commenced and the U23 coach Emerse Fae took charge as caretaker. This obviously turned out to be a game-changing move as the host’s form completely flipped as they eliminated defending champions Senegal on penalties in the round of 16 for Fae’s first game in charge. They followed this up with a 1-0 victory against Mali and then DR Congo in the quarter and semi-finals respectively. They eventually overcame Nigeria in their second meeting of the competition, with Sebastien Haller, who was diagnosed with and beat testicular cancer in 2022, scoring the winning goal and securing Ivory coast’s third AFCON title.

However, north of the continent, these thoughts were not in the minds of the European football audience. What they were concerned with was seeing their club’s players not getting injured at the competition and returning to their club as soon as possible.

An example of this backward attitude comes from Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, who publicly stated before the AFCON began that he wanted his star man, Mohammed Salah’s Egypt to be eliminated early in the competition, quoting– “If I wish you good luck it would be a lie”. Although he made this comment in a humorous manner, it is a negative remark that puts the ignorant attitude and complete disregard of the manager towards this event on full display, especially at a time that the player may look back on as a crucial moment for their career. Fortunately for Klopp, his wish came true, albeit in a bittersweet manner, as Egypt was eliminated in the round of 16 after a penalty shootout defeat to DR Congo. A fixture which Salah was absent from, due to a hamstring injury he picked up against Ghana in the second round of the group stage fixtures which led to the Egyptian returning to Liverpool earlier than expected for treatment. Further revealing that he will be ruled out for almost a month, much after the AFCON was meant to conclude.

Few years back, Napoli president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, displayed a similar attitude towards the AFCON in a more aggressive manner, stating that he refuses to sign any African players for Napoli unless they refused to participate in the AFCON, quoting-  “Enough with Africans, unless they renounce on playing the African Cup of Nations, I will not buy them anymore for that reason. We pay their salaries to send them all over the world to play for others right in the middle of the season.” These comments may have been invoked due to multiple African players departing mid-season for the AFCON, in particular Victor Osihmen, who displayed the value African players have on the Napoli squad. Victor led the front line in the 2022-23 season, scoring 26 goals, securing Napoli’s first league title in 33 years and finishing as the season’s top scorer. 

Both Klopp and De Laurentiis’s concerns are valid as a mid-season international competition can really impact the club’s season as a whole because these players’ absences can cause sudden shifts in the game planning and tactics. If these players pick up an injury during a competition, it can lead to a catastrophic turn of events for the club. However, due to these concerns, the spotlight on the talent displayed in these competitions is completely shunned away as all stakeholders of the club are worried about the players returning soon and as safely as possible. And the blame for this scheduling cannot go to the confederation involved. In hosting the competition as they plan it out, factoring all nations and their domestic and continental season schedules without focusing on the European audience’s concerns who they have no obligation towards, it can be a tricky situation. 

If only the Premier League is taken into consideration, for the 2023/24 season there are nearly 75 players from the African Federation, which is nearly 14% of the total registered players in the Premier League. The case is similar across all the major European leagues, as Africa produces world-class talent on the regular, including players of African origins, who comprise an even larger percentage of the active player pool. AFCON 2023 truly displayed the peak of talent in African players and the growth trajectory that African football is currently on. If we even look back at the 2022 World Cup and Morrocco’s spectacular run to the semi-final it shows that African nations are trying to prove themselves time and time again, and the AFCON does deserve recognition on a level similar to the Copa America or even the Euros. I believe it is a competition many consider to be on par with the World Cup, in terms of hype and even contention, and there’s no reason why the AFCON should not be seen in a similar light, or at least, not with the negative outlook it is currently seen with.

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