Five questions about CAF's Nations Cup expansion
On Thursday, the Confederation of African Football's executive committee made a number of far-reaching decisions about the future structure of the organisation and its competitions.
By far the most headline-grabbing were the decisions surrounding the Africa Cup of Nations, or Afcon. CAF's Exco adopted the recommendation of its committees to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, and to kick it down the calendar to the northern summer months of June and July.
Naturally, not everyone agrees, and there are a number of issues to consider when discussing the topic.
Why did CAF go this route?
Amaju Pinnick, president of the Afcon organising committee, explained to the media that the moves were "hinged on sporting, commercial and infrastructural reasons, and we believe that sooner than later, everyone would come to appreciate the position of the proponents of a bigger Africa Cup of Nations".
The main elephant in the room, which Amaju did not address, was that it also allows more of the 'big teams' to qualify. Over the last few years, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco have all missed the tournament at various times, but with an expanded tournament there is less chance of these big guns missing out on Africa's flagship competition and the attendant sponsorship money that comes with it.
How many countries can host 24 teams?
At first glance, not many. Besides the north Africans, Nigeria and South Africa, it is hard to see many countries on the continent with the capacity to host 16 countries, let alone 24.
But according to Pinnick, CAF's workaround is to encourage co-hosting: "CAF will certainly encourage co-hosting, and this will also ginger general infrastructural development in the continent. Having a 24-team Afcon will compel the development of stadia facilities across the African continent."
One major country, like Nigeria, South Africa or Ethiopia, could take the lead host position and two other countries can share co-hosting rights. These co-hosts handle less of the burden, they host two groups each, and one knockout phase. After that, the rest of the competition moves to the lead hosts. It spreads the costs, helps the smaller nations develop their facilities, and they get a chance to witness the tournament first hand.
However, should only the lead hosts get automatic qualification? Another issue to ponder.
Is there a commercial rationale for this?
Pinnick says there is, and points to UEFA as an example: "More corporate organisations and stakeholders will be involved and it is certainly a bigger cake for everyone. CAF will be richer and the Member Associations will surely benefit.
"When UEFA staged the European Championship in 2012, when it was a 16-team event, they made a profit of $1.5billion. Last year, when they staged a 24-team event for the first time, they made $2.1-billion."
The strategy makes sense, but for years CAF have struggled to raise significant sponsorship money. Earlier this year, former CAF President Issa Hayatou told KweséESPN that the advertising market was shrinking and his leadership should be commended for negotiating a long term, $1billion sponsorship with Lagardere.
So it begs the question of whether Ahmad Ahmad's CAF will re-negotiate the deal with Lagardere for an improved offer or, failing that, find legal ways to extricate themselves from the current deal and look for new sponsors. Then, will those new sponsors put in the level of financing required to sustain an expanded Afcon?
An expanded tournament offers broader reach, but CAF will need real professional and aggressive marketing to meet their budgets for this expanded completion.
Will weather be a factor?
It most certainly will. A few countries aside, most of the continent is in the midst of their rainy season during that period. Some have suggested building covered stadia. That is all well and good for those who are already inside the stadium when it starts to rain.
But what about before the game, when fans have to walk long distances in the downpour to get past security barriers and queue to get in?
Won't this dilute the quality of football?
With more numbers comes some inevitable dilution. But bad as the football may be for neutrals, fans of the countries involved will love and revel in it. And it will be a reasonable trade-off to discover some hidden nuggets among the smaller African nations.
As Pinnick puts it: "George Weah from Liberia became the only African to have been named the World Player of the Year, the same year he was voted the African Player of the Year and European Player of the Year. He is from a nation many would consider a minnow in the African game.
"If we have a bigger Afcon, there will definitely be more talented players coming onto the stage, and we could just discover that the next 'Weah' would come from either Djibouti or Botswana."