Hindsight may prove otherwise, but putting final AFCON Qualifiers in March makes little sense
The Mighty Costa Rica! I remember that rather sarcastic tag from Matt Smith, in an ITV documentary about the World Cup. It was a dig at Scotland, and their World Cup woes, as their failures to beat Peru and Iran in previous tournaments had been pointed out, before their loss to minnows Costa Rica.
That tag floated back into memory during the 2014 World Cup, after Los Ticos beat Italy in their second group game. Costa Rica saw off the Azzurri after beating Uruguay in their first game, to confirm their qualification from Group D, the clichéd Group of Death which had Italy, Uruguay and England, and in which Jorge Luis Pinto’s team were never considered for anything beyond bottom spot.
Costa Rica won that group and saw off Greece on penalties in the second round, to astonishingly reach the last eight. This was the fairy-tale story of Brazil 2014, but according to the team, it was no fluke; skipper Bryan Ruiz and the rest of the side spoke afterwards of how they had six months of preparation, which put them in good stead to be the surprise packages of the World Cup.
Which brings us to African footballing body CAF, and their seeming neglect of, or rather disregard for, proper preparations. When the idea for a summer African Cup of Nations tournament – that would feature 24 teams – was put forward in 2017, there was scepticism, over issues like the environmental conditions, quality of teams, and what not, with The Guardian UK’s Jonathan Wilson opining on it. But there were also pros, such as not having to play the tournament during a league season and not pulling players away from their clubs, as well as the prospect of fairy-tale qualifications and tournament.
But the act of playing the final qualifying games in March, three months before the tournament begins, surely brings the cons of the whole tournament idea to the fore. Opting to put the final AFCON qualifying games might seem like a publicity strategy, to get fans on the continent to anticipate about the final games, some of which could be decisive. There’s also an issue of how the concept of two games in four days could make a team physically spent, and having a refreshed squad for pivotal final games isn’t a bad idea.
But this also means there’s less preparation ahead of the tournament. The draw for the main competition will happen in mid-April, which gives teams little time to make plans, in terms of camps and hotels, not to mention fans and ticket sales. For a continental body that’s not so good on planning or foresight, proof of which came in the stripping of the hosting rights for this tournament from Cameroon last year and then giving them to Egypt, this looks like a shot in the foot. And as for the case of the teams being fresh and avoiding two games in four days, the fact that all teams will, or rather would, play that way means there’s no unfair advantage to anyone.
Time will certainly tell, and CAF may get this right, but the organisation never seems to be making preparations with the interest of everyone in mind, or preparations that bode well.