THE Confederation of African Football (CAF) rose from its seminar and con- gress of July 18 to 19 in Rabat, Morocco, announcing far-reaching changes to the structure of its major football competi- tions. The showpiece continental football competition, the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), was moved from January/Feb- ruary to June/July, while the number of participating countries was increased from the current 16 to 24.
The option of inviting countries outside the continent to participate in AFCON was considered, but the suggestion to hold the competition every four years, instead of every two years as is currently done, was rejected. There were also changes to the format of the apex club competitions which would now run from August to May. The principle of increasing the indemnities of referees was approved. The Committee also resolved to fight against age-cheating through available scientific means and also carry out in-depth research on the possible causes of the increasing sudden deaths of African footballers.
There is also the institution of zonal qual- ifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations for the youth categories (U-17, U-20, U-23), with flexibility offered to each zone to propose a formula.
Overall, the reforms brought African football administration in greater align- ment with European and global soccer management. The changes are welcome because they have far-reaching implica- tions for the development and growth of the sport in Africa. As it is said, change is the only constant thing in life.
We congratulate CAF and its Executive
Committee for finding the courage to introduce these changes. The immediate beneficiaries of the reforms will be our professional players, most of whom ply their trade overseas. The old January /February timing of AFCON often put the players, their federations and the foreign clubs they play for at loggerheads. It frequently resulted in the non-release of players for the competition and reduced from the attractiveness of African players to those clubs. Even if FIFA had to come up with strong measures to ensure the release of such invited players, everyone was a loser in the end. Because the clubs found ways to manipulate the regulations anyway, it resulted in needless FIFA/club/player rows. Some players, under intense pressure from their clubs, announced their premature retirement from their national teams and great- ly reduced from the competitiveness of AFCON.
European clubs which were compelled to release players for AFCON often in the middle of their seasons suffered disruptions to their programmes, with negative consequences for their African players, some of which included less competitive contracts and, sometimes, complete rejection and non-signing.
With the alignment of the African football calendar with the European version, the fate of the players is expected to dramatically change for the better. This should be noticed in the new contracts they would sign in future and their increased attractiveness to foreign clubs. African football would also gain as more funds flow in from players and the increased participation and competiveness of the game on the continent engender new opportunities for its develop- ment and economic viability. It would appear that Africa is at last waking up to the reality that football is big business. But, reaping its fruits takes hard work.
Some of that work has to begin now. Increasing the number of AFCON finalists from 16 to 24 means that more hosting cities and stadia have to be provided by hosting nations. The fact that CAF and many host nations perennially struggled with logistics for the previous 16-team format underpins the work that needs to be done if the new 24-team format is ever to gain traction. Again, the change from the old January/February calendar to the new June/July version means that there would be greater challenges of getting the stadia ready and ensuring maximum attendance and participation at the events.
These are challenges that come with changes which CAF, working with all the relevant stakeholders and partners, must strive to surmount. If this is done, the potential for the growth of the game and the accruing benefits to all stakeholders in African football will be enormous.