Every two years, the African Championship for Nations (CHAN) tournament takes place and one is currently ongoing in Morocco. It comes with splendid stadia, surprisingly large crowds, and appreciable television and video coverage.
Yet, each CHAN attracts naysayers on social media who raise the question about the tournament’s value. Why is the CHAN needed when there is already an AFCON for national teams? If CAF has already discontinued the Player of the Year Award for Africa-based players, why not do the same with the CHAN, which is also for Africa-based players?
Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) President Ahmad spoke to South African officials last July noting: “There is no scientific analysis that tells us to get rid (of the CHAN). . . I would like to thank my predecessors because one of the good things they left behind as a legacy is the CHAN. . . . it is gaining in status and respectability and whenever it takes place the stadiums are jam-packed. The number of countries taking part in the preliminaries is increasing every time.” If that is not a ringing endorsement, then I don’t know what a ringing endorsement is.
However, ringing endorsement or not, is it a tournament that brings value to a country like Nigeria? That is what should matter, at least for Nigerians, and not whether the CAF’s President gives thumbs up or down. Nigerian critics have cited a variety of issues pertaining to the CHAN: (1) it ruins Nigeria’s FIFA ranking, (2) it drains funds from the Federation always hampered by meagre funds, (3) It hardly produces any player worthy of the “A” national team, and (4) it is poor quality competition that provides no benefits to the country. There are more criticisms but I have listed those that seem to be the major ones.
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Ruining Nigeria’s FIFA Ranking?
There is no denying the possibility that participating in the CHAN may ruin Nigeria’s FIFA ranking. That surely can occur but it is preposterous to attribute such possibility to the competition. What ruins Nigeria’s FIFA ranking isn’t the competition but poor preparation for it.
If Nigeria prepares well, then it should earn valuable points that puts the country in position to rise in the rankings than to do nothing and not play games. One thing about the FIFA ranking is that it privileges countries that play more games because points accumulate from playing games and zero points arise from not playing. Of course, it is also important to get as many points as possible and that requires playing and also winning those games. That is why preparation and participation matter.
All competitions require funding to prepare teams and the CHAN is not different. However, for the Nigerian Federation, participation in competitions must be carefully chosen because funds are not limitless. Is the CHAN one of those competitions that deserve to be chosen? It seems to me that there ought to be major considerations here.
The first is should the federation find a corporate sponsor for the CHAN team then this question is irrelevant because the corporation undertakes the funding. The second is whether the prize for participating covers the cost. The current prize is $1.25 million and the budget for the Nigerian national team to the CHAN is N500 million ($1.38million).
Thus, even if the team is to win the competition, there will be a shortfall. Worse still, the probability of not winning the big prize is high for all teams and, thus, possibility of a bigger shortfall. In such a case, there has to be other benefits to underwrite the expenditure and that includes player development addressed below.
Developing Players for “A” National Team?
The claim that the CHAN does not help develop players for the “A” national team has very little evidence. Nigeria’s African Nations Cup (AFCON) winning team of 2013 had several players who were members of the CHAN team including Cup-winning hero Sunday Mba. Since then there are others who have played for the “A” national after first appearing in the CHAN including the likes of Kunle Odunlami and Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
That definitively is support for the essence of CHAN in developing players for the “A” national team. Sure, some critics may claim that players can still be found from the local clubs without Nigeria’s participation in the CHAN. That is possible but it will be more difficult because the CHAN adds value by providing platform for sifting the best local players from the poor ones and then providing a camp to bring their quality up.
Poor Quality Competition?
There are those who suggest that participating in poor quality competition devalues Nigeria’s claim as a significant soccer nation in the continent and under develops its players. However, there is possibly nothing else further from the truth than such a claim. First, no one should expect the CHAN to be on the same level as CAF’s flagship AFCON. The AFCON involves the continent’s best players and the CHAN involves players being developed to become the best players in the continent. Thus, the difference in quality should be expected and accepted. Moreover, the significance of Nigeria’s soccer power is enhanced by dominating continental competitions which include the CHAN. Nevertheless, Nigeria cannot afford to deny development of its players whether it is at CHAN, the youth tournaments or elsewhere.
Invariably, the CHAN is a competition that is valuable in many ways than one. Though, there are issues of costs associated with the competition but the Nigerian federation can solve this problem by seeking a sponsor for its CHAN team. The federation’s recent success in signing-on sponsors such as Coca Cola demonstrates its effort to solve some of its funding issues and, perhaps, a sign that such effort justifies supporting a worthy competition such as the CHAN.
Can I add one other consideration. I am of an age when growing up and watching Nigeria’s teams compete was the through pinnacle of football fandom… This was the era before cable/satellite TV and even local broadcast of European football although Brazilian football used to be shown in snippets at weekends.
At that time almost all our national team players except the late great Keshi and one or two others were home based as was most of our opponent’s players. So effectively African competitions including Afcon were effectively CHAN’s.
I like to watch CHAN because it hearkens back to those days. I will admit that the quality of competition is not the same because it appears that now that European football and even Asia is drunk on the wine of cheap African imports even at lower league level, almost every slightly capable player and even some ‘Otu’s’ have made the trek overseas. Only some North African and Southern African sides seem to have largely held on to their best players. This is a curious situation that has produced at CHAN level a realignment of African football power and I think heralds danger for Nigeria if we take our eyes of the ball. In recent times, Nigeria has suffered some shock losses to hitherto unfancied teams and we can all attest to how much a predominantly locally based Zambian squad pushed the Super Eagles in the race for Russia over the more fancied Algeria and Cameroun.
I believe this is due to the fact that those Zambians are playing CHAN and COSAFA and other tournaments on the regular which are elevating cohesion and confidence. Sides like Sudan are also making noise because through CHAN they are getting to the latter stages of tournaments whereas they typically failed to make the grade at AFCON and World Cups. Now the confidence of playing and winning CHAN is filtering through to their performances at the more elite levels.
So Nigeria should take CHAN and WAFU and every opportunity to improve a greater pool of players seriously. In the end, if the FA was up to its responsibilities, it should know that giving the better locally based players (those we assume too unlucky or unskilled to go and play even in Kazakhstan) a chance to compete for Nigeria also has a positive impact on the league, and if Nigerian football is to truly develop and become a self-sustaining economic entity, re-engagement of the myriad Nigerian football fans with the local league is a must. It will be a long time before we can economically match up with even 2nd tier football clubs in the bigger leagues so an exodus of better players is somewhat inevitable but with planning, foresight, investment and exposure, I believe this is still a path to improving league quality and overall player development so that we increase fan bases.
CHAN involvement offers a useful opportunity within that toolkit.