African Cup going out of Africa? Radical changes proposed

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The African Cup might be going out of Africa.

The United States, China or Qatar could be asked to host the African Cup of Nations in radical changes proposed Wednesday to give the continent’s biggest soccer tournament the global exposure it craves. The proposals were set out in a presentation to the Confederation of African Football by Philippe Antoine, as the spokesman for the Marketing and TV working group.

Antoine told delegates that “the idea of inviting three or four teams from other continents, in addition to 20 or 21 African teams taking part, was also seen favorably ... as was the hypothesis of a final tournament being staged, exceptionally, in a country of another continent.”

Some of the ideas floated, like taking the African Cup to another continent or inviting non-African teams to participate, might be a little too radical for CAF to implement, at least right away.

For one thing, what would happen if a non-African team won?

But as CAF executive committee member Danny Jordaan of South Africa said: “If you want to think globally, act globally.”

And one change that is expected to be made is moving the Cup of Nations from the start of the year to the European summer months of June and July. That will avoid it taking place at the height of the European league season, a clash which has often undermined the Cup of Nations by making top African players choose between staying with their European clubs - their employers - at a crucial time for them, or representing their country.

Many, like seven of Cameroon’s top stars at this year’s African Cup in Gabon, choose club over country to the detriment of African soccer’s showpiece.

All the proposals for the future of the African Cup were made at CAF’s two-day meeting in Rabat, Morocco, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The meeting, an African soccer “symposium,” was an opportunity for national coaches, former players and CAF officials to share ideas. FIFA president Gianni Infantino also attended.

Any changes would need to be formally approved by CAF’s executive committee, which is expected to meet before CAF’s special general assembly, a decision-making meeting, is held in Rabat on Friday.

The move to June and July has widespread support and is expected to be enacted.

Also on the table - and also widely supported and likely to be confirmed - is increasing the number of teams participating from 16 to 24, following the lead of the European Championship, which went to 24 teams last year.

More teams mean more games, and more television and marketing revenue for CAF. The African Cup is by far CAF’s biggest source of income.

“The reason we advocated for a 24-team format is very simple,” CAF executive committee member Amaju Pinnick said, adding African soccer should expect a significant increase in revenue.

“The more the merrier,” he said.

But an add-on to that increase in teams was the suggestion that the 24 could be made up of 20-21 African teams and 2-3 “invitees” from other continents, while the final tournament could head out of Africa.

The focus appeared to be on Qatar, with the committee noting that the 2022 World Cup host country would have all the required infrastructure to hold the Cup of Nations in 2023.

Non-African teams and a non-African host aren’t ideas that are likely to be implemented soon, though, if at all. And CAF has already decided the hosts for the next three Cup of Nations, including awarding the 2023 tournament to Guinea.

New CAF president Ahmad of Madagascar, who was elected in March to replace long-standing leader Issa Hayatou, promised a review of the Cup of Nations in his election campaign and has appeared open to the most immediate change, moving the three-week tournament from its normal January-February window to June-July.

That would schedule it in the European leagues’ offseason, the window used by the World Cup and the European Championship.

Previous opposition to moving the tournament centered on the African climate, with the middle of the year deemed too hot in North Africa, too cold in southern Africa, and too wet in west and central Africa because of the monsoon months.

But club competitions in Africa are played throughout the year, including June and July. The next African Cup is in Cameroon in 2019.

One thing expected to stay the same is the Cup of Nations being held every two years. CAF has bucked the trend of every other major soccer event to hold its flagship tournament every two and not four years. With the Cup of Nations CAF’s biggest and most reliable money-earner, the African soccer body appears unwilling to stage it less frequently.

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