Learning from the AFCON

Posted on January 31, 2012 7:03 pm

Last Friday, John Duerden wrote an article for ESPN Soccernet in which he points out three possible reasons for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) enjoying greater international relevance than the Asian Cup. Of course, my first reaction to the piece was to ask if the same criteria could explain the lesser international importance of the Gold Cup in comparison with the aforementioned continental championships, or at least serve as a measuring stick for where our own biennial tournament stands. We face particular challenges based on time zone and our unique compatibility with CONMEBOL (a subject for my next entry, which I hope to publish in the next two days), but neither lends itself to this comparison. Instead, I will apply Duerden’s framework to the Gold Cup, and add one important factor missing in his analysis.

Duerden’s first and most convincing explanation for why the AFCON garners more interest than the Asian Cup is that the former convenes a greater collection of globally-recognizable stars. Here, I will set aside my normal “Support the Local Product” mode and call it like Duerden sees it: the “stars” to whom he refers are the ones who make their names in the biggest clubs in European football, for which reason not a single Egyptian makes his list of African “A-listers”. Park Ji-Sung and Park Chu-Young are the only Asian players plying their trade at the top clubs in England, Spain, and Italy, the consensus Top Three leagues in world football (with all due respect to the Bundesliga, whose relative lack of consistent UEFA Champions League success prevents it from getting the attention it deserves), while every one of those clubs has at least a pair of Africans on its roster.

In our corner of the world, there is only one player who would undoubtedly count as a “star” according to Duerden’s definition, and we all know who he is.

Outside of the elite clubs of Europe, we also have Clint Dempsey, Bryan Ruiz, Wilson Palacios, Hendry Thomas, Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones playing on a regular basis in the Premier League, and Landon Donovan has earned respect for his cameos with Everton and his performance in the last World Cup; but none of them would have that strong a pull on international viewers outside of their own club’s fans. In terms of star production, Africa has a geographical advantage over both Asia and our region: European scouts do not have to travel as far in order to pick out promising youngsters and get them into elite academy programs in the Old Continent, where they will be shaped into world-class players. Over here, on the other hand, our national associations and professional clubs have to take upon themselves the task of player development, even if foreign coaches can be hired to improve the quality of instruction for our up-and-comers. I will avoid a more thorough discussion of this issue here and simply say that while the level of player being produced in our part of the world is far below that seen in Europe and South America (with the exception of Mexico), the upward trend in countries such as the United States, Canada and Panama should produce a greater number of technically sound players in a few years’ time.

Duerden also points to the abundance of human-interest storylines in the AFCON for international viewers who otherwise could not be bothered with a match between Equatorial Guinea and Libya. His three examples, however, relate to political and tragic events that would simply be beyond CONCACAF’s capacity (or desire, clearly) to emulate. Perhaps Chuck Blazer and co. could have shined a brighter light on the Honduran team at the 2009 Gold Cup, representing a country scarred by an ongoing political crisis, but then I am not sure if it could be considered ethical for football administrators to seek profit in human suffering. Lest anyone misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that Duerden implicitly arrives at such a cynical conclusion; simply put, this factor lies well outside CONCACAF’s authority.

Lastly, Duerden states that while not every game at the AFCON is sold out, the fan presence there is much more attractive to the international viewer than its Asian counterpart. To which I say: enjoy it while you can, because the tournament’s headed to South Afribzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz next year. Here the Gold Cup actually outperforms the AFCON, even though both continents rank relatively poorly for traveling fans at continental championships. The United States is peculiar in that the national teams of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras can pack stadiums all over the country, allowing for such spectacles as El Salvador selling out RFK Stadium in Washington, DC for their 2011 quarterfinal against Panama and Mexico selling out all but one of their matches in the tournament (their group stage game against Cuba “only” managed 40,000 plus).

The factor that Duerden fails to include in his preview is the competitiveness of the tournament itself. You might think that this would matter only to invested fans of the sport; but the possibility of an underdog clawing their way to the championship is a powerful magnet for luring casuals and even non-football fans. Think of all the press American Samoa received for winning just one World Cup game, or Iraq when they managed to take the 2007 Asian Cup. There are at least half a dozen teams that show up at any given AFCON with the intention of winning the thing (e.g. Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Tunisia, Ghana), and second-tier teams that challenge the favorites on their day (e.g. Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Angola, South Africa). Over here, however, only once has either the US or Mexico been knocked out by a fellow CONCACAF opponent not named the US or Mexico in the Gold Cup: back in 2000, when Canada edged Mexico in the quarterfinals through a Golden Goal. The last three Gold Cup Finals have all been US vs. Mexico clásicos, exciting and attention-grabbing matches in their own rights; but as long as the twin giants maintain their hegemony over the rest, outsiders will stick with the impression that the competitive part of the tournament begins at the end – even if two of the six semifinals between 2007 and 2011 went to extra time, and three of the remaining four were decided by just one goal. Then again, trends do not last forever; Egypt won three African Cups in a row, only to miss out entirely on the current edition.

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