What can CAF learn from its handling of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations?

The Confederation of African Football (CAF), like many other sports governing bodies, suffers from something of an image issue. There are so many things that people will point to as being problematic and suggest numerous ways of dealing with them. Here are just a few of the issues that have marred CAF’s handling of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with a few simple and cheap solutions.

For more than four years now CAF has come under scrutiny for the way it has handled the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Even the announcement in September 2014 was marred by controversy. CAF were expected to name hosts for 2019 (Cameroon) and 2021 (Ivory Coast) which they duly did but then also chose Guinea as hosts for 2023 without any prior warning.  The sudden addition of 2023 instantly ruled out other nations with longer term plans from having the chance of hosting African football’s showcase event. CAF did explain its move after the fact by saying Guinea’s presentation “and commitment,” led the committee to decide “to exercise its power to make an immediate decision.” Which then begs the question why not make the possibility of naming an extra host public right from the start to allow everyone a fair chance to make a bid?

Despite a change in the CAF presidency the controversies surrounding the 2019 Nations Cup continued in July 2017 and it has been a similar story since then.

In July 2017, CAF approved the expansion of the Nations Cup from 16 to 24 teams and moving the dates from January and February to June and July. Immediately both changes caused their own disagreements and arguments from all those involved in football fans – will more teams improve or weaken the finals? Will the weather affect the tournament? Those arguments will always rage. What is more clear is that to impose such changes on a host nation three years after awarding them the rights and just two years before kick-off is unfair. Budgets are in place, plans for stadiums and training grounds are already in place not to mention the impact on other things – including accommodation, transport and security.

Compare the move by CAF with what Fifa have done with the World Cup. Football’s world governing body spent months debating whether to change the dates of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar before a final decision was made. That World Cup may also feature 48 teams BUT the discussion are ongoing as to whether that is possible and the expansion has not been imposed on the hosts. Also qualifying for the 2022 World Cup has not begun unlike the campaign to reach the 2019 Nations which had started BEFORE the expansion necessitating a change in the rules of who advances to the final.

The changes immediately led to another problem for CAF with more than a year of controversy over whether Cameroon would in fact be in a position to host the tournament. Cameroon were never likely to step aside as hosts voluntarily so it was always going to be CAF who had the final say. One way the speculation could have been stopped is by setting out some specific criteria to be fulfilled with a deadline for them to be completed and after that date for a final decision to be made. Clear guidelines and dates would make it harder for comments made by CAF officials and organizers to be misinterpreted.

CAF even managed to cause controversy when it did decide to make a decision by making it moments after one of the continent’s most important matches of 2018. At almost exactly the same moment Cameroon celebrated clinching a place at the Women’s World Cup they also got the news the country had been stripped of the right to host the Nations Cup. The executive meeting had lasted all day meaning that none of the senior CAF officials watched the match let alone being in the stadium to lend their support to the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. The final the next day was even overshadowed by the announcement as talk turned to who would replace Cameroon as hosts. Holding such an important meeting on the day after the final could have allowed the tournament to be completed with the coverage and celebration it deserved. It looked that a similar mistake would be avoided for the announcement of the replacement hosts as the CAF executive committee was set to meet on the day after its own annual awards gala to crown the African Footballers of the Year. Instead at the last minute the meeting was brought forward by 24 hours once again allowing an event to be overshadowed by news that could have waited a day or two.

Finally there is the reassignment of the 2021, 2023, and 2025 editions of the tournament. In principle the idea of asking Cameroon to host 2021 and moving Ivory Coast and Guinea by two years is not a bad one BUT the way it was handled was very poor. Again such decisions surely need the consent of the nations involved rather than snap choices made and announced without consultation.

There are of course many other issues that affect CAF and many other controversies that could be mentioned surrounding the 2019 Nations Cup let alone the day-to-day running of the organisation. These are just a few that have been in the headlines and continue to be there and they all seem to have simple straightforward answers.