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 By Colin Udoh

CAF must take FIFA's lead and expand the African Nations Cup

By the end of the week, two events of significance to African and world football would have taken place.

Two events which, on the surface appear disparate, but upon closer scrutiny, are just vines born of the same root.

First, FIFA voted to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. It is not a decision that has gone down well with many, and will continue to generate fierce debate going forward.

The major argument being that such an increase would not only present the possibility of too many matches in an era of increasing game fatigue, but would also dilute the quality of the football on offer.

These are very legitimate claims, but as FIFA presses on with the new format, the only way to find out will be in nine years. Until then, the debate will continue.

Five days after the FIFA decision, and thousands of kilometers away in Gabon, the African Nations Cup, consisting of 16 teams, will kick off.

If ever there was a tournament more ripe for expansion, it is the African Nations Cup. CAF, with 54 members, is second in numbers only to UEFA, with 55 members.

Since 2010, UEFA's Euros have moved from 16 to 24 teams. CAF has been stuck on 16 teams since 1998.

FIFA's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams should be the cue CAF needs to add another eight countries to the AFCON.

In recent years, countries usually dismissed as minnows, with no hopes of beating the so-called "big boys" to the qualification line, have grown in stature, gained in self-belief and shown that the fear of these big boys is not a factor for them. Not anymore.

Part of the reason for this is World Cup qualification. Africa has shown a correlation between World Cup qualification and a team's stature. Such stature growing in almost direct proportion to qualification.

Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco dominated the continent up until the late 70s by virtue of their participation at the World Cup.

Cameroon emerged from the shadows after qualifying for the World Cup, as did Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal. Angola moved from no-hopers to a genuine African football threat. As did Togo.

The last two have given hope to smaller countries, and opened the door for the likes of Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Congo DR and even Guinea Bissau to find their way back to the Nations Cup.

By contrast, the likes of Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa have found themselves shut out of the continental showpiece, either at the same or different times.

There can be no doubt that for all the positives a new entrant brings to the tournament, the loss of such huge countries takes way too much away from the tournament.

And when these countries regroup and return, they also take away from the unbridled joy and passion that would be sustained by having these new entrants return.

Which eloquently makes the case for that expansion.

One question that naturally from expanding the Nations Cup would be hosting. All but the biggest and most wealthy African countries struggle to host even the 16-team tournament. Expanding to 24 teams at first glance might seem to completely rule out these smaller countries from ever hosting.

But that need not be true.

CAF is not exactly a beacon of disruptive thinking. But in this case, that is exactly what is needed.

A regional hosting format would not only allow more countries to enjoy the benefits of hosting, but would make the costs easier to spread.

Three countries each from each region (West Africa, East Africa, Central and Southern Africa) can come together at any point in time to host the tournament. The format would be one lead host, with two minor tri-hosts.

A long-term benefit would be the development of facilities that would eventually allow one of such countries to host a 24-team competition.

Africa needs a bigger Nations Cup. CAF are no strangers to copycat thinking. The Champions League, the creation of Confederations Cup from a merger of the Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup, and even borrowing a leaf from FIFA's forced decision to award co-hosting rights to Japan and Korea present conclusive precedent.

Copying one more time should not be that hard.

Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.


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