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The big African leap
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 07 - 2017

It took the new administration of CAF – Africa's Football Federation -- just four months to launch a new era by taking some bold and forward-looking decisions. Coupled with the profile of the participants, the African Football Symposium, held under the patronage of Moroccan King Mohammad VI, saw heated debate under the theme ‘African football; our vision', signaling the dawning of a new page in the development of African football as declared by CAF President Ahmad Ahmad upon his election on 16 March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
It was indeed a fruitful and productive symposium. Actually, a success for African football's new government. After two days, the elite of Africa's football family produced valuable recommendations, most of which were approved the following day by the CAF Executive Committee.
Eight workshops were held after the opening plenary session at the Palais des Congrès in Skhirat, a suburb of Rabat, attended by prominent dignitaries. The Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) was a pillar in setting up the symposium, providing funding and logistics.
The workshops were held simultaneously for almost four hours with a 10-minute break. Participants discussed several issues: the Africa Cup of Nations; Interclub competition; football development; youth football, international partnerships, communication and media, marketing and TV, and players.
Each of the 55 member associations affiliated to CAF were represented at the two-day event by football federation presidents, general secretary and national coach. CAF was also keen on inviting legendary, renowned, knowledgeable and experienced technical brains of African football, including coaches, players and referees.
Also in attendance was a FIFA delegation led by its President Gianni Infantino and General Secretary Fatma Samoura who took an active part in the symposium, which also attracted experts from UEFA, European football's governing body. Samoura was keen to visit all eight workshops, spending time to listen and contribute with her expertise in the discussions.
CAF President Ahmed Ahmed
The workshops, over two public sessions with the floor open for discussion, produced recommendations meant to improve African football.
“I am a happy man today. A contented manager. An overwhelmed president,” CAF President Ahmad said after the conclusion of the symposium. “Yes! Happy, contented and overwhelmed by all I have seen, heard and retained. Our great football family has done an unbelievable demonstration of its intellectual, technical and strategic capabilities. The voices I heard here, coming from all the zones and regions of our continent, have definitely assured me of the power we possess to bring about profound change.
“As a manager, I am satisfied at the correctness of your analysis, moral rectitude, intentions and by the fact that you uphold the major or superior interests of CAF. As president, I am overwhelmed that at the end of four months of my mandate, your unfailing support, your commitment firmly on my side reassures and gives me the strength to forge ahead into this mandate with an even greater motivation.
“The symposium marks a break-off point with the past, and installs a new governance with new firm orientations. It institutes a new work philosophy, sets up a strategy birthed from your uncountable ideas. The symposium will forever be seen as a founding act of a new CAF. It now calls on us to embrace work, rigour, discipline, and respect for the rules outlined here.
“I share this great responsibility with you. It is together within our great African football family that we shall carry out the new actions and shall confront all sorts of difficulties and blockages that shall arise before us.
“I therefore trust in your immense ability to make of CAF a rigorous organisation, perfectly transformed, totally serene in its new commitments. Thank you to you all for these results that are beyond my expectations,” Ahmad said.
The recommendations were then reviewed by the executive committee members who decided to advocate the establishment of a working group to work on the implementation of the resolutions and propose short, medium and long-term implementation timetables. A consensus emerged on a number of issues raised by the working groups. These included increasing the Africa Cup of Nations to 24 teams as of the 2019 edition, to be held every two years in the months of June and July; maintaining the current format of the inter-club competitions, but to proceed in the future to a change in timing to start from August to May; approving the principle of increasing the indemnities of referees, expressing its determination to explore all scientific and medical solutions that could eradicate the phenomenon of age cheating; research that can help determine the causes of sudden death among footballers, the majority of whom are of African origin; organising zonal qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations for youth categories (U-17, U-20, U-23), with flexibility offered to each zone to propose a formula; resolving to strengthen medical checks in determining the eligibility of players; urging the need for improved relations between CAF, its member associations, governments and the African Union; supporting suggestions made for the improvement of CAF's communication tools on the digital platforms and social media, as well as taking into account meeting the expectations of the media since strengthening the specifications of the competitions; endorsing the principle of creating a framework for cooperation with legendary African footballers and their greater involvement in CAF activities; calling for the opening bids for the selection of a new host country to the 2019 U23 AFCON after the withdrawal of Zambia; awarding the 2018 Beach-Soccer AFCON to Egypt; and setting up inspection visits to CHAN Kenya 2018 at the end of August 2017 and early September to Cameroon 2019.
The CAF Executive Committee also noted that Sudanese club Hilal El Obeid had now, after the lifting of the suspension of Sudan by FIFA, qualified for the quarter-finals of the Total CAF Confederation Cup.
The committee also approved the CAF president's proposal to appoint Amaju Pinnick as a member of the Emergency Committee. Another major point of the reform of the statutes, which led to the enlargement of the CAF Executive Committee, is that African members of the FIFA Council are full members of the CAF Executive Committee, with voting rights. The terms of office of the FIFA Council and the CAF Executive Committee are therefore no longer cumulative.
The symposium concluded with the CAF Extraordinary General Assembly which saw the adoption by a large majority (50 votes for and three abstentions) of amendments to the organisation's statutes. A meeting of the Executive Committee was convened by Ahmad to implement some of the new statutory provisions.
While most officials were satisfied with the hopeful and evolving outcomes of the symposium, some issues raised concerns and some criticism, particularly when it came to the most prestigious sports event on the continent and the third biggest football event in the world -- the Africa Cup of Nations, or AFCON.
In the AFCON workshop, where this writer took part, the pros of cons of the increase of the number of participating countries from 16 to 24 and holding the event in June and July instead of its usual January-February slot saw fruitful discussions for the sake of improving the competition, be it technical, organisational, economic, media and marketing. The majority endorsed the changes. But the workshop's debates were behind closed doors. When the recommendations were made public the following day, opposing voices, some loud, were heard.
Some believe that with 24 teams instead of the usual 16, AFCON is no more an elite competition, considering the fact that almost half of the continent will be playing in the final phase. Africa has 53 nations as members. While the workshop has recommended the increase should be implemented after the 2021 edition, the executive committee decided the application should go with the next edition in Cameroon in 2019, despite the fact that the qualifications started last month.
For some, the implications of a sudden increase in the size of AFCON, with barely two years to the next tournament, is underestimated by the Executive Committee members, as it enables half the continent to play in AFCON. Those against the increase to the 2019 edition describe it as being in for a flop quality-wise and a competition that will last close to two months. The 16-team current competition lasts almost a month.
African players will have to play the 2019 Cameroon and 2021 Guinea AFCONS as well as the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup all during June/July except the 2022 World Cup which will be played in December, which is way too much for players. Also asking the hosts to suddenly accommodate eight more teams and provide more stadiums and training pitches when they are already struggling to provide facilities for 16, is considered unfair. Before the symposium and congress, Cameroon came under criticism for being behind with its preparations. Rumours had it that they were warned the event could be moved. An inspection team is expected to pay a visit to Cameroon in September to decide on its readiness. The Guineans could be luckier, given they have more time.
Beginning the new changes as of 2019 does not appear to give enough time for a proper transition. Changing the rules when qualifiers have started and having a major competition every end of season were seen by the opposition as some of the mistakes made in Rabat. For them, the way several decisions have been taken leave many questions unanswered. It seems that the new CAF government wants to be seen as taking bold, radical decisions which are far-reaching. But they need to be taken with caution.
Some find that even though CAF changed presidents it's still led by cheerleaders and any contrary views are suppressed, its advocates to be flogged in the market place. Those who wanted AFCON to be played in June and July appeared to be treated as Europeans, not Africans. Today any word against reforms and you are called a ‘Hayatu man', referring to the former CAF president Eissa Hayatou.
The thinking is that while Africa can jump to 24 teams the procedure needs to be thoroughly studied and applied progressively. Why the rush? The AFCON expansion plan is certainly, according to some, a political decision, because many countries feel bad about not being able to qualify for the 16-team format. And from here came the idea of the expansion, for smaller countries to be part of the competition.
But what about the organisation? By taking the decision, CAF has to take a more hands-on role regarding AFCON preparations, the way FIFA does. But the politically popular is not always correct. You can't please everybody. What is needed in African football, post-Hayatou, is a change in how long-term decisions that have a profound effect on the African game are taken.
Apart from South Africa and the northern bloc of the continent, there are several question marks concerning how many countries in Africa will be able to host the AFCON, especially the smaller states. The question is whether they meet the criteria. Which means that hosting the AFCON and profiting from its revenues will only be reserved for big countries.
It is not about Cameroon; any other country could have been given the 2019 AFCON, and would be facing the same issues. The new CAF government is perfectly within its right to do what it deems fit even if some disagree with some of its decisions. The concern is that some feel an adequate transition period was not required.
One of the biggest fears regarding playing in June and July is that it sets us on a course for an eventful four-year AFCON. This has been denied by the workshop's participants and the executive committee because Africa needs the event to stay bi-annual for the sake of developing the game for everyone in the business. Having it being held every four years as the UEFA Cup would lead to a decline of African football.
Right decisions taken by CAF executives mean the Africa game will blossom and ill-timed decisions will clearly have profound consequences.


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