The vuvuzela has become a trademark of African football after the World Cup in South Africa three years ago. [Álvaro Felipe]
c The vuvuzela has become a trademark of African football after the World Cup in South Africa three years ago. [Álvaro Felipe]

South Africa: Is the African Cup of Nations good for Africa?

The 29th Africa Cup of Nations (CAN), which begun on 19 January when hosts South Africa took on debutants Cape Verde, will attract a record global audience.

In 1957, just three teams, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, took part in the inaugural competition but as more and more independent nations were formed in the 1960s the competition grew and since 1998, 16 teams have competed every two years for the coveted title of African Champions. The most successful nation is Egypt, having won the title on 7 occasions, including 3 consecutive wins from 2006-1010. Following them with four wins each, are the West Africa nations of Ghana and Cameroon, but 2013 may well throw up some surprises with many teams capable of victory, although Cote D’Ivoire remain the perennial favourites. This is reflective of the growing standard of football on the continent and surprises such as Cape Verde defeating Cameroon to qualify are not as unexpected as they once were.

The appeal of the tournament is also spreading rapidly, especially with the increasing number of African players now plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues. Cumulative viewing figures for the 2012 tournament reached record levels, a total of 6.6 billion viewers tuned in over the course of the tournament, and figures are expected to increase in 2013.

This is being reflected in increasing amounts of global television coverage and sponsorship from leading global brands. In 2009, Orange signed an 8 year agreement to become official sponsors of the tournament, seeing it as a great opportunity to raise their profile, not just in Africa, but globally. However, the increasing amount of football talent emerging from the continent is beginning to have ramifications on the continents international football calendar.

The decision to alter the years in which the competition takes place is to avoid a clash with the World Cup; the change explains why there have been two tournaments in consecutive years. It is hoped that this change will lead to improved World Cup performances by Africa’s representatives none of whom have advanced passed the quarter final stage.

As well as altering the years in which it takes place, there is an argument being made, that holding the event every four years, like its European and South American counterparts, would be most beneficial for the overall development of professional football on the continent. This is a demand being engineered by major European clubs, and their managers, who dislike losing key players for over a month, often at a critical juncture in the season. As well as suggesting the tournament take place every four years they are also in favour of moving it to the summer so as not to disrupt the clubs who are the ones that pay huge amounts of money for their skills and talents. But would this be genuinely better for African football more generally and the fans who want to see these stars first-hand?

The Cup of Nation as a Burden?
Hosting a sporting event requires lots of investment and quite often large scale infrastructure development, especially in countries like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea (the most recent hosts), who were required to invest heavily in order to meet standards. Gabon spent in the region of million and African Economic Outlook believes that the work done to prepare for the competition contributed to slower economic growth for the 2012-2013 financial year. South Africa is a slightly different case as it already has the infrastructure from hosting from the 2010 World Cup, but it too needs to answer the question of whether or not it is financially viable, or economically beneficial, to be the host of a major football tournament.

In Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for example there was no significant rise in tourism during the competition and matches that took place where the hosts were not involved or where major stars were not playing witnessed very low attendances. The official attendance when Sudan played Burkina Faso was only 132 and empty stadiums were a feature. This has already been replicated in South Africa. In explaining this, a wide variety of factors need to be considered.

The high cost of tickets (the cheapest ticket for a group match cost around ), the comprehensive coverage provided by television stations such as DSTV and a lack of supporters travelling from outside the host countries, which in part explains public apathy. Aly Khan Satchu, a Nairobi based economist has suggested that ‘from an economic perspective, the competition is a loss leader and ticket sales regular fail to achieve their targets’. Yet countries still vie to become host.

Many African nations have much more pressing socio-economic issues to focus on and socio-political commentators argue they should not be ‘wasting’ money on hosting a football tournament when the basic needs of the people are not being met. The Democratic Republic of Congo applied to host the tournament in either 2015 or 2017 but withdrew their bid in 2010 citing too many other commitments in the next few years.

Security concerns also remain an issue for the competition. Libya was due to host the current tournament but continuing instability in the country forced organisers to ask South Africa to step in. Fears also remain about the security of some players and teams as they become increasingly globally known. Just days before the start of the 2010 competition in Angola, the Togo team bus was attacked and three people were killed. It led to the team withdrawing from the competition citing security fears and this attack heightened tensions, not only amongst other teams, but also among visiting fans.

The success of the World Cup in South Africa and the vibrant atmosphere created by vuvuzelas did go some way to building Africa’s reputation as a host of international sporting events. However, South Africa is one of the most developed states on the continent and others cannot guarantee the security or provide the required infrastructure so easily.

The Cup of Nations as a Rising Force
The African Cup of Nations is growing into an unstoppable force and it continues to produce storylines that draw in fans and observers from across the globe, as the increased television audience serves to reiterate. Zambia’s victory in 2012, coming 19 years after a fatal plane crash in Gabon (where the 2012 final was played) killed 25 members of the Zambian football team and coaching staff on their way to play a World Cup Qualifier in Senegal was an extremely emotional and poignant triumph. The compelling story it generated drew in audiences from across the world and there seems to be a growing interest in the football and footballers the continent has to offer.

Undeniably, the tournament has the potential to offer an array of benefits to those who are involved in it. With the increasing television audience it offers a chance to both players and host nations to showcase themselves and what they have to offer on a global stage. The number of players who now play football in Europe is increasing year on year and the African Cup of Nations gives players the opportunity to showcase to the world their talent. It also gives the fan the chance to see the players that they respect, and to an extent idolize, representing their country and culture. This can inspire the future generation of African football stars.

If the viewing figures continue to increase, then revenues from television rights and increasing demand from sponsors to be part of the event will see more money flowing into grassroots African football. What is needed, is to ensure that the money is not wasted or misappropriated. The money needs to be utilised in a way that helps grassroots community based projects across the continent. Here the governing body of African football can look to players such as Clarence Seedorf and Didier Drogba for inspiration.

They have created foundations which seek to combine football and education for children. Viewing it as a way of giving back to their country to which they retain a strong connection to, and pride for. Many African stars possess a great deal of influence in their home nations, Drogba is a member of the Cote D’Ivoire on Peace and Reconciliation Commission for example, and they have taken on the responsibility to act as role models to the future generations. In places like Cote D’Ivoire where violent conflict has been a feature of the past two decades positive role models are in short supply. People like Drogba have a significant role to play.

Across Africa, the English Premier League is watched religiously and football shirts are a very common sight but I have seen greater pride in the national team than any level of loyalty shown to these club sides. Having been a part of a 40,000 plus crowd when Uganda took on Zambia in a final qualification match for this year’s Cup of Nations, and seeing the desolation on the faces of the Uganda fans as their 34 year wait for an appearance at the tournament continued. I can assure you that it is not a lack of passion which causes poor attendance. Half empty stadiums continue to be a feature in South Africa, but you can be sure that bars will be packed, and radios huddled around, across the continent as the battle to become African champions takes place over the next three weeks.

Jamie Hitchen

Jamie graduated with a Masters in African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2011. He has since held short term roles at Electoral Reform International Services, The Commonwealth Secretariat, Human Rights Centre Uganda and Development Education. He currently lives and works in Kampala, Uganda and is interested in issues of elections, governance and peace-building in the region.

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