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Ravel Morrison enjoying life at Atlas


All eyes should be on Africa

With just days away to the kick-off of this year's African Cup of Nations in Ghana, one of many issues that will continue drawing attention from outsiders is the timing of the competition.

Historically the Cup of Nations has been a mid January to early February - once every two years - event for African countries and its Confederation; CAF.

Critics, fans and officials have asked in varying forms and fashion for a move to the summer as this competition affects mainly European clubs and their busy schedules. CAF on the other hand will not budge; citing weather as a factor for having the competition in the winter.

The major issue here is not the African weather, which most people have attested to as the reason the continent would not move the competition.

Weather does play an important role and the CAF and its supporters have used it as their excuse for many years. It may be a confusing weather system, but once again the major issue here is not the weather, it is control.

European clubs want Africa to suit their calendar and nothing else. The clubs want control over when the competition is held and would rather have it not affect their season. Some critics have mentioned this, but nobody is really addressing that issue.

If the African Cup of Nations is scheduled during the summer, it stands to lose a lot of value; CAF loses its minimal control as it possibly competes with other major football events during that period. Every fan of the game with a voice, pen or computer has their opinion about when the event should be played and with that CAF is watching, absorbing all the media focus as it stands firm, because no other confederation shares that attention with them.

Imagine the dearth of media attention this competition would receive if played in the summer? Winter publicity - every two years - is still press and face time in the media and Africa's biggest spectacle needs every ounce.

It cannot hustle and rub shoulders with the big three; the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America. It would be totally unfair to a continent always struggling for recognition for its football events. Plus a move to the summer would require constant shift in a World Cup year.

This was previously not an issue as the CAF and the event did not have attract this attention pre-globalization or the internet. Most importantly, before a plethora of big-name African players started plying their trades with top European clubs, this competition rarely attracted much attention.

Yes, blame it on the African players playing in better clubs with lucrative contracts than their predecessors. But it's not that simple. As the years have gone by, and players have drawn immense attention to the competition with increased quality of play, European clubs have invested in African talents at a very expensive risk; losing the players to the coveted event most Africans refer to as their own World Cup.

This was not a problem 20 years ago. When Morocco hosted Africa's best in 1988; when there were only eight teams in two groups of four. A few African players like Ivorian Youssouf Fofana, Nigeria's Stephen Keshi and Cameroon's duo of Roger Milla and goal keeper Joseph-Antoine Bell were among the major names.

Not forgetting Algeria's Lakhdar Belloumi who was revered in Africa and played most of his career at home. Except for Fofana, none of the other players plied their trade with the likes of Chelsea, AC Milan, Barcelona or Arsenal back then. African players were at relatively modest clubs in France and the majority in Belgium.

In a spate of six years, due to a huge export in fantastic African talents, the 1994 edition of the Nations Cup in Tunisia created major discussion across the entire football world about its quality of play and clubs losing players to the competition. Just three years earlier, one of the big names of the continent had already tasted defeat in the Champions League Finals; Abedi 'Pele' Ayew of Ghana was on the Marseille team that lost to former Yugoslavia's Red Star Belgrade.

Plus the '92 ANC finals in Senegal which featured an extraordinary number of foreign-based players was an epic battle between Ghana and Ivory Coast, two teams with plenty of Africa's budding talent on display. European clubs had hinted on a strong dislike to losing players for a stretch of time, especially valuable players, and after Dakar some key players were still missing by early February.

Two years later in 1994, when players like Victor Ikpeba of AS Monaco and Finidi George of Ajax were bench warmers for the national team, club officials were none too happy when those players could have been great additions to their various clubs during the winter period.

Though the clubs are not too thrilled with players, leaving let alone riding the bench at the event, the players themselves do not seem to mind due to the strength of patriotism. Gone are the days when African players lost their starting spot because they attended the African Cup of Nations and took a while to get back to starting status for their clubs.

Some still might, but the likes of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o, Frederic Kanuote, Kolo Toure, Michael Essien or Yakubu do not have that problem; their clubs need them to start. The players understand their position on their national teams, beyond pride. Playing for the national team is a dream for most African players, and the players look forward to such opportunity to showcase their talent to bigger clubs.

With every event, a new star is born; as much as European clubs through their coaches complain about the timing. The clubs are constantly spending on scouting because Africa is the new breeding ground and there is always a club looking for the next George Weah.

It's quite easy for a fan, critic and journalist with no allegiance to demand a temporal move for the competition. After all, the local club they support pays the wages of these players and he who plays the piper dictates the tune. It's not always that easy. For a foreigner with no knowledge of the African system, there are factors that do not mitigate the overall solution of a summer move.

Also, with recent news that CAF officials are in no haste to move the competition, there has to be a common ground between the European clubs, African national teams through CAF, with UEFA and FIFA moderating on a long-term solution that would satisfy rather than aggravate all groups involved.

The reality with the Nations Cup scheduling is pretty simple; it is here to stay and most African countries are not up to the level of their European and South American counterparts. Hence hosting the event bi-annual is still an option, rather than every four years like the European championship and the World Cup.

But a stubborn approach from any of the groups involved would not solve the problem. FIFA in its infinite wisdom must step in with UEFA and address the dwindling relationships between CAF and the major European clubs.

This can only go south before it gets better. A solution might be a winter break for all European clubs during the months of December and January. The clubs already have transfers in January, so focusing on business; selling and buying players during that period as CAF and other confederation could host their regional events.

Other continents can benefit from it as well. This way could see clubs take some sort of extended break and national teams can play their competition without constant complaint from the clubs.

This would be a great alternative, but there is one problem, European clubs are no longer just clubs, football is not a business and these major clubs lose their control.

But it would have been be quite a spectacle as the entire football world focused on Africa for the next three weeks, at least just on football.

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