Ask even the most casual fan of international football which part of the world dominates the sport in terms of wealth, prestige, appeal, best players, and number of trophies, and you’ll immediately hear “Europe”, with slightly more observant fans noting “Western Europe”. This may have been a truism for the past 30 years of the game, says Rory Smith, chief soccer correspondent of The New York Times, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, a continued dominance of football by one region of the world will be detrimental to the health of the sport and its players in general.
Top-tier players risk burnout, where their duties to their clubs’ league matches, regional, continental, and/or world tournaments have them playing constantly, with little rest in-between matches. In the meantime, the global sporting body FIFA wants to create a new tournament, and top European clubs want to expand the UEFA Champions League and tack on four more match days to what is already a grueling tournament.
In comes Africa, throwing all these plans into disarray. Cameroon, host of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, has decided to move the tournament up from June to January on account of the weather. The move is justified, as temperatures during the Cameroonian summer can go as high as 25.56 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit).
In 2016, the tournament was moved to the European summertime on the basis that most star African players are members of European club teams, so having the Africa Cup of Nations during the European off-season made sense. This Eurocentric line of thinking, Smith argues, will be Europe’s undoing. Making everything fit around the European football schedule will reduce attendance and interest in the sport globally and hamper the development of players from outside Europe. Remedying this, Smith points to a suggestion by none other than FIFA president Gianni Infantino for the creation of a Pan-African League.
Such a league would not only bring in revenue of about US$200 million annually, but would also give popular clubs in Africa—like South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs, Egypt’s Zamalek, and Ghana’s Asante Kotoko—a level of competition they rarely get in their domestic leagues. It would increase demand for broadcast rights and, in turn, generate greater investment in telecommunications infrastructure. It may also allow African clubs to develop their players more instead of selling off their best and brightest to European scouts as soon as the transfer window opens.