By Imani Adesanya
The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicked off on 13 January 2023 in the Ivory Coast, where 24 countries will compete to become the champions of Africa. The final will be on Sunday, February 11th. The competition sees the likes of Mohammed Salah, Victor Osimhen, Mohammed Kudus and many other footballing stars feature to propel their nation to victory.
Whilst this tournament is set to be highly competitive and exciting, much of the discourse surrounding it has concerned the supposed inconvenience and disruption it is set to cause for Premier League clubs. For example, Sky Sports have had multiple segments solely discussing which clubs will be most affected.
January to February tends to be a crucial point in the domestic season, with games coming thick and fast. Whilst some fans are happy to see their players representing their nations on the international stage, fans who see football through a European lens see the tournament as an inconvenience.
There has long been a tension between international and domestic football. For instance, many fans often complain about the frequency of international breaks. However, when it comes to AFCON this tension seems to be exacerbated. Other international tournaments such as the Euros and Copa America tend to happen during the summer – after the domestic season has ended. As a result, these tournaments are not viewed as negatively and are generally more appreciated than AFCON.
As international tournaments themselves highlight, not all countries are the same and are instead characterised by unique cultures, values and contexts. AFCON has a tradition of being hosted in the winter. It is specifically because of these different contexts that the tournament is taking place in the middle of the Premier League season. The tournament was originally scheduled to take place in June 2023 but this was later changed to January 2024 because of the sweltering summer conditions in the host nation of Ivory Coast. Temperatures in many parts of Africa tend to be well above 40°C during the summer which is too hot for football.
This is not too dissimilar from the 2022 World Cup which took place mid-season, during the winter, as it was being hosted in Qatar. The only difference, of course, is that domestic leagues were put on hold. Whilst presently this may be an inconvenience to European football fans, ultimately it is beneficial in the long run as it protects the welfare of players.
AFCON is a tournament that should be celebrated and respected, especially by European football fans. The continent produces high quality players, who have been able to establish themselves as some of the best in the world, playing in the best leagues in the world. The tournament represents more than simply a game, because it illustrates that in times of crisis and political unrest, unity can prevail. Despite there being concerns about ongoing domestic unrest in Cameroon, who were the host country, and the worldwide spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the tournament in 2022 was a success. It is a powerful symbol of cohesion and hope – defying stereotypes of the content.
AFCON was first held in 1957, when many African nations were fighting for their independence. During this time and through to the late 20th century, African players and AFCON would have been insignificant to European football fans, as football was not as diverse as it is now. In the opening Premier League season (1992/93) only 0.9% of players were African.
Ironically, this is not the case now. Football has become globalised and in the 2022/23 season, 7% of all players in the Premier League were from Africa. This means that European fans and clubs have a growing interest in African players. AFCON was not created to suit the European football calendar. It is important that fans and the media recognise this and change the discourse surrounding the tournament from one of inconvenience to excitement and opportunity.