January 9, 2022


Why AFCON matters (Carl Anka,  Jan 8, 2022, The Athletic)

Due to the lack of infrastructure in African football, there is not the mass industrialisation of footballing talent at grassroots and academy levels that we now take as the norm in Europe.

Only a competition such as AFCON could lead to two separate investigations into players using witchcraft to gain an advantage.

If you want a uniquely AFCON story, Mali were once eliminated via the drawing of lots -- and not in the dim and distant past but in 2015.

No other tournament can manifest performances as brilliant as Ndaye Mulamba's 1974 AFCON, when he managed to score nine goals across six games, including a final that went to a replay, for Zaire (now DR Congo), prompting journalist and author Dipo Faloyin to remark, "I'm not sure Africa's fragile internal politics could take a player doing something so outrageously provocative again."

To properly understand AFCON is to know the story of Kalusha Bwalya, the only Zambian to win African Player of the Year in 1988, but who lost 18 of his international team-mates in a 1993 air crash in Gabon. Bwalya and Zambia would come up just short in the 1994 and 1996 editions of the tournament, only to finally triumph in 2012.

There is a photograph of Bwalya -- by then the president of the Zambian FA -- as he collects the trophy on behalf of the team who had just won it, and the team he lost years prior. Study his face and you will understand the power of his tournament.

"He deserved that moment, to stand on the house he rebuilt," wrote Faloyin.

This AFCON will, again, be different.

Twenty-four teams will compete, after AFCON upsized from 16 in 2019. Several former heavyweights are approaching the ends of their supposed "golden generations" while countries including Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco appear to be entering their prime.

Thanks to FIFA rule changes in 2020 -- introduced in part thanks to the work of the football federations in Algeria and Morocco -- there are more first, second and third-generation immigrants playing for their mother nations. If he can recover from COVID-19, Paris-born Manchester United youngster Hannibal Mejbri could have a breakout tournament for Tunisia.

This month's matches will not be like the football you typically see in Europe or South America. It has its own internal rhythms and playing styles, unique in time signature and tactics.

Every time an Africa Cup of Nations arrives, you will see sceptics and doubters try to underplay its importance to the wider footballing landscape.

But you cannot bury an AFCON tournament, for it is a seed of unbridled footballing joy.

Posted by at January 9, 2022 8:38 AM