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Afcon’s decision to allow 24 countries to play is paying off – and having dramatic repercussions

BY the end of the group stage, the 34th Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) was one of the most exciting and memorable Afcon tournaments in recent memory. This was particularly true of the performances of the continent’s best players on the field.

As a scholar of sports communication with a focus on African football, I’ve followed developments with interest, notably the 2019 decision to increase the number of national teams in the final stage from 16 to 24.

CHUKA ONWUMECHILI, Professor of Communications, Howard University

There were several critics of the expansion of the tournament. They argued that Afcon was being watered down and that more teams would lead to several poor games at a time when Africa was trying to grow its game. But opening the gates to several teams that would previously have found it difficult to qualify resulted in a breathtaking group stage. Several teams that were assumed to be minor upset bigger ones, and a powerhouse like Ghana failed to move beyond the group stage.

The decision to expand has had several repercussions beyond the field. The upsets also call into question the efficiency of the team ranking system and the importance of star players who compete in Europe. The results have had a dramatic impact on coaches too.

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Shock upsets

World football body Fifa and the Confederation of African Football (Caf) both revised their tournament formats to try to close the gap between the top football countries and the rest. Both organisations have adopted a league system for qualifying stages which allows more countries to play in multiple games against the top-ranked teams. The results can be seen at Afcon this year.

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The big surprises in the new, expanded line-up have come at the very top. Four of the six top-ranked teams – Côte d’Ivoire (8), Egypt (5), Algeria (4) and Tunisia (3) – failed to finish top of their four-team groups. Worse, Algeria and Tunisia have been eliminated from the tournament. And four-time champions Ghana (11) are also headed home.

Meanwhile, Cape Verde (14) and Angola (28) topped their groups despite being seeded third in them. One of the biggest shocks has been Mauritania, once among the worst-ranked teams in Africa, who beat Algeria and are headed to the knockout stage.

Rankings exposed

Analysing the results not only from this tournament but also from the previous Afcon two years ago and the ongoing World Cup qualifiers indicates that the ranking of African teams cannot be trusted as a means of determining their potential success. Many teams are more closely matched than the rankings reflect.

Caf uses the rankings to estimate the relative strength of teams and to group them accordingly in the tournament. In other words, the top-ranked African teams, plus the host, are kept apart, in separate groups, at Afcon. But the results haven’t supported the expectation that the rankings predict the top team in each group.

Star players

Another myth steadily being debunked by the upsets is the idea that African teams with star players who play for top clubs in Europe will be victorious over teams without such players.

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Namibia, with most of their players labouring in African leagues, overcame highly ranked Tunisia with a squad that included players from top European clubs. Mauritania, with seven players playing locally in Mauritania and a few others playing in the Middle East, beat Algeria, who have players at top European clubs.

Talented players are not only playing in Europe – they can be found playing on the continent and in diverse locations in Africa.

Impact on coaches

Just a few years ago most African national sides had foreign coaches. Today as many as half of the teams at this year’s Afcon are managed by coaches with local roots. Several of these coaches have done well in the tournament. Morocco’s Walid Regragui and Senegal’s Aliou Cissé come to mind.

Surprise winners in the group stage include Equatorial Guinea, led by a local manager, Juan Micha, and Cabo Verde, led by local coach Bubista. The only group winner led by a foreign manager has been Angola, coached by Portugal’s Pedro Soares Gonçalves. What is clear is that a foreign coach does not guarantee success – and the number of young local coaches with the expertise to guide African national teams to success is growing.

Of course, the group stage upsets have also meant a re-evaluation of several managers. Already Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Algeria and The Gambia have moved to sack their coaches. Côte d’Ivoire’s Jean-Louis Gasset, from France, was relieved even when his team still had a mathematical chance of moving into the second round. Locals were understandably upset by two consecutive losses, one a humiliating 0-4 defeat to Equatorial Guinea, ranked 18 in Africa. Côte d’Ivoire was ranked 8 this month by Fifa.

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The group stage – and the hype around it across the continent – has justified Caf’s decision to expand the tournament and provide opportunities for a larger number of African teams to play in international contests. If the trend continues, African football is coming of age.

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By The African Mirror

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