Afcon: Mounting injury absences prove summer tournament isn't without flaws

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Caf's decision to move the Africa Cup of Nations has been applauded, but it presents its own peculiar challenges

In 2017, Ahmad Ahmad swept to power at the Confederation of African Football in unlikely fashion, perpetuating the 'new broom' gospel that had sprouted at Fifa, and had also consumed Europe.

His tenure so far has been decidedly mixed: for every inch of progress, there is a trail of allegations; for every advance, there is a caveat. Even more worryingly, it remains unclear whether he has the temperament and administrative nous to truly lead.

However, if there is one decision made under his leadership that has drawn universal praise, it is that of the scheduling of the Africa Cup of Nations.

For the longest time, a club-versus-country discussion centred on the timing of the Afcon in January, right in the middle of the European season. With most of Africa’s best and brightest playing professionally abroad, the problem was obvious: clubs were not enamoured with the idea of losing well-paid employees for a five to six-week period midway through the campaign.

Issa Hayatou, Afcon trophy

Their displeasure was met with indifference, at best, and scorn, at worst. It was, in the eyes of former Caf president Issa Hayatou and those closest to him, yet another attempt by Europe to dictate terms to Africa, a remnant of the colonialist ideology that the continent had struggled, fought and bled to shed.

And so, the louder the complaints, the more fervidly Hayatou dug his heels in,but his pride (whether altruistic or egotistical) felt misplaced: it put the players themselves in the most discomfort.

Having worked hard to establish themselves in a certain position and ascend to a degree of relevance at club level, they would often return from the Afcon to find their spot taken up by another, and the managers reluctant to upset the team’s chemistry all over again.

Also, how committed would the players be to putting it all on the line, knowing the season was only halfway gone and any injury would likely rule them out for the rest of it?

Ahmad Ahmad, Caf President

As such, Ahmad’s compromise was roundly applauded: it took a crushing weight off the players’ backs, ensured that the continent’s best would be available, and assuaged the concerns of the clubs.

However, the lead-up to this summer’s edition in Egypt has laid bare the other side of the coin, and that is the spate of injury-enforced absences and withdrawals.

Ivory Coast will be without their influential No. 9 and stalwart defender Eric Bailly; Tunisia and Mali, shorn of Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Yves Bissouma, will doubtless be weaker in the middle of the park; there are doubts over the fitness of Naby Keita; while it has recently been confirmed that Keagan Dolly will play no part for South Africa.

Ghana’s Alfred Duncan, having opted to delay surgery till the end of the season, will also be missing in action, and is one of several Black Stars in major European leagues who won't make the cut.

There is, of course, no exact timeframe for injuries—they happen all the time. However, in scheduling the Afcon in the summer, the continent is forced to confront the problem of burnout, one which is all too familiar to Europe.

Whereas the problem with January was that the players had to weather the disapproval of their clubs, and would arrive distracted, the concern in summer is that the players either cannot play, or arrive physically wrecked.

The change in timing, coupled with Caf’s reluctance to go the whole hog and change the tournament to a quadrennial one, could lead to the undesirable situation whereby Africa’s top players would be without an offseason – and the rest that comes with it – for a three-year span bookending the World Cup.

Keagan Dolly Bafana Bafana v Libya, September 2018

Also, with temperatures in Egypt reportedly causing concern, there is a danger that a perfect storm is gathering, and we might be set for a few shocks at the Afcon.

There is precedent for this.

The 2002 Fifa World Cup was a largely forgettable slog: a long European season, coupled with simmering heat in the Far East, saw a number of the top nations eliminated early: France, Portugal and Argentina memorably exited in the Group Stage, and Italy followed soon after in the Round of 16.

Upsets are generally enjoyable, but so many of them so early had a damaging effect on the quality of the play, and culminated in a thoroughly underwhelming tournament.

This is a reality that Caf will now have to confront: it used to be that the standing of the players in their clubs might be compromised by the Afcon, now it is their very physical wellbeing that is in the balance, and by extension the quality of its showpiece event.

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