The recent decision by the Confederation for African Football (CAF) to increase the number of teams for its flagship tournament – the Cup for Nations (AFCON) – from 16 to 24 has generated a lot of uproar.
The loudest cry of criticism has come from those who immediately labeled it ‘a dilution’ of the AFCON. Yes, it seems logical that dilution is a genuine criticism after CAF increased the number of teams in the finals. But is it? Let us examine that argument.
First, dilution is indeed possible if teams at the finals are significantly better than teams that fail to make it. Let us remember that this argument is based on the supposition that the present 16-team final is acceptable.
Let us examine the issue of ‘dilution’ by looking at the 2017 finals. Note that the likes of Zambia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, Guinea, and South Africa were absent. Each of those is a team with notable pedigree. If they were added to the 16, I doubt that the critics would have been against it given the pedigree of those teams. Adding those teams would have led to 21 teams!
Second, what is missed by the hasty move to scream ‘dilution’ is a failure to look deeper and examine competition in the African continent. The fact is that football in Africa is very competitive with minnows becoming fewer and far between.
Again, let us look at the 2017 qualifiers. Of the teams that I mentioned above, Zambia, Guinea, and South Africa did not even come close to qualify for the 2017 finals from their groups.
If this was the result for 2019 qualifiers, those three teams would not even make the final 24 teams. Fact is that there were other teams, albeit with lesser pedigree but better on the field, that outdid each of those teams. What does it mean? It means that the pool of good teams is not only deep but it is widening as several of these teams make use of foreign-based players and possibly the CHAN and regional competitions are having developmental impact.
It seems to me that the biggest criticism should not be ‘dilution’ but about the format of a 24-team tournament. With a 24-team tournament, CAF is likely to adopt the format used for a 24-team World Cup in 1994. UEFA used the same format in the last edition of Euro. This means six groups of four teams each.
This allows four of the six third place teams to get to the next round. Why does it matter? It encourages draws, which often present a viewing eyesore in most cases for spectators. Draws assure a team of getting to the next round but turns some games into boring affairs. Thus, blame the format and not the quality of teams.
Of the decisions taken by CAF in its recent meeting in Morocco, the 24-team tournament should be the least of them to worry about. In what some may rightfully argue as a regional political outcome, the 24-team is one decision that benefits all the regions.
Look at it this way: 1. AFCON qualifying format was not tampered with to make it a zonal affair as a pay off to CECAFA and COSAFA, 2. It provides smaller nations better chances of getting to the AFCON final, 3. It also partially assures the bigger nations like Nigeria a regular AFCON appearance after missing three of the last four, and 4. It theoretically offers better chances of not only increasing CAF revenues, which ultimately gets to more nations but it also provides a chance for quicker facility development across the continent.
‘Dilution’ is a smokescreen and a criticism that is not as insightful as one may think. It is an argument made in a reflex but with not much thought.