Was AFCON 2021 An Indicator That The Quality Of Football Has Elevated Across The African Continent?
By Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press
A little more than a year ago, FIFA president Gianni Infantino joined a Zoom conference call that was being directed from Cairo.
The 51-year-old quizzically peered into the camera. He kept gesturing towards to be unmuted and looked like an unsure student awaiting approval from a professor to speak during an online lecture. It is a sight countless students have been forced to witness while taking online classes during COVID-19.
When Infantino’s microphone eventually was turned on, the members of the Confederation of African Football’s 42nd ordinary general assembly sat back and listened as he congratulated CAF on its resumption of club and national team competitions and addressed the project of football development on the continent.
“In the last five years, FIFA has committed over USD $500 million in development projects in Africa through the Forward Programme,” Infantino said. “More than 300 infrastructure projects were put in place: stadiums, pitches, dressing rooms. And thanks to your hard work, we have only had to contribute.”
The FIFA forward 2.0 program was implemented in June 2018 after the success of its predecessor, the FIFA forward program. This program is a wide scale development agenda that invests money into each of the 211 member associations or countries associated with FIFA.
In FIFA’s original program slightly over $1 billion was raised to fund each country from 2016 to 2018. The introduction of the 2.0 program saw that investment increased to $1.7 billion across 2019 to 2022. Each African nation has received more funds to allot to academies, infrastructure, and the development of football in their respective nations.
AFCON 2021 was a veritable sample size of what that increased investment has done to bolster the development of football on the continent.
The group stage of the tournament was arguably the most intriguing preliminary round in its history. It featured tightly contested and action-packed matches where there was little to separate the teams, whereas in previous AFCON tournaments there have been a select group of frontrunners (Ghana, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria, et al) that have dominated past competitions.
That gap is seemingly closing.
There were a significant number of upsets and shock results. This may be credible evidence that the quality of football within smaller African nations and their respective federations is improving. Comoros beat Ghana on the final matchday for Group A to qualify for the knockout stages, eliminating Ghana from the competition. Comoros is about the size of Jacksonville, FL, and has a population of approx. 900,000 people. The were admitted as members of FIFA in 2005.
Equatorial Guinea was the first team to defeat previous AFCON champions Algeria in 36 matches, and a win in its last group stage match saw Equatorial Guinea advance to the knockout stages. Algeria finished in last place and was eliminated from the competition.
Malawi was able to sneak into the last 16 after drawing with Senegal on the final matchday of its group, deploying a squad consisting mainly of players from the Malawian domestic league and South Africa’s two top divisions.
The trend of upward development in Africa’s domestic leagues is coupled with the rise of even more African footballers in Europe’s elite leagues. Since the start of the Premier League, there has been an uptick in African footballers represented. Take a look at the percentages increase since the creation of the league.
Percentage of Africans Represented in the Premier League:
92/93 season: 0.9 %
00/01 season: 3.7 %
21/22 season: 7.0 %
Across other leagues in Europe, there is a sizable contingent of African players as well. In Europe’s top 11 professional leagues (Premier League, Ligue 1, La Liga, German Bundesliga, Serie A, Primera Liga, Russian Premier League, Austrian Bundesliga, Super Lig, Belgian Pro League and the Eredivisie) there are plenty of young talents and stellar players under contract.
Africans make up 6 percent of players in all 11 of these leagues. The growth of the African players in their respective domestic leagues has also been substantial. Sudan international Mohamed Abdelrahman was the first ever Sudanese footballer to eclipse a value of $1 million when he joined Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal from Algerian club CA Bordj Bou Arreridj, while Egyptian giants Al Ahly had nine of its players at AFCON. No other club in the world sent more players to the tournament.
The evidence suggesting the quality of football across the continent was bolstered in the knockout stage.
In the Round of 16, Tunisia pulled off an incredible upset to defeat Nigeria, 1-0. Nigeria, which breezed through the group stage with three consecutive wins and admirable individual performances from Moses Simon, Joe Aribo, Ola Aina, Wilfried Ndidi, and Samuel Chukuweze, was beginning to cement the Super Eagles as favorites to win the competition. And a Tunisian side that was missing ten players and their coach, Mondher Kebaier, due to positive COVID-19, was able to earn a narrow victory using eleven players currently playing professionally in Africa.
Malawi international Frank Mhango placed his name in the spotlight in the Round of 16. Mhango currently plies his trade in the DSTV Premiership, the top division of South African football. The Orlando Pirates forward scored arguably the goal of the tournament when he struck a stunning strike from 38 yards out that arrowed over Morocco’s keeper.
Although Malawi exited the competition after a 2-1 loss to Morocco, Mhango enjoyed a great tournament. His brilliant form led Malawi to their first-ever Round of 16 tie in an AFCON tournament. Three goals in four matches also led Mhango to reconsider his interest in moving to Europe. Even though a move never materialized, Mhango perhaps placed himself on the radar of clubs abroad. He is able to accelerate quickly across short spaces, skip past defenders in tight spaces, and score from tight angles around the penalty area. Mhango is currently valued at around $850,000 according to Transfermarkt, and that value could continue to increase if he is able to keep his form consistent at the club level.
Yossouf M’Changama is a player who did replicate his club form at the tournament. M’Changama currently plays for Guingamp in Ligue 2. In 23 appearances this season, M’Changama has scored four times and assisted nine goals. He scored a sensational long-range free kick in Comoros’s Round of 16 tie versus Cameroon. Take a look here:
There was one minnow that was able to power itself into past the Round of 16 as Burkina Faso reached the semifinals for the first time since 2013. Right back Issa Kaboré starred at the tournament producing three magnificent assists and securing the award for the best young player at the tournament. The 20-year-old currently plays for Manchester City but is on loan to Troyes AC in Ligue 1.
Burkina Faso lost to eventual champions Senegal in the semifinals, but the talented team that featured captain Bertrand Traoré was a joy to watch during the tournament.
The rising quality in football in this tournament – and that joy – could be a precursor of things to come.
On that Zoom call, Infantino reminded CAF that the number of teams allotted from Africa in the World Cup will increase in 2026. Currently 32 teams qualify for the World Cup in 2026, but that number increases to 48 for the following World Cup. Africa is guaranteed at least nine places at the 2026 World Cup compared to five in the most recent World Cups.
Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o told ‘The Athletic’ he believes an African nation could win a World Cup in the near future.
“Winning a World Cup is not impossible,” Eto’o said. “I won, I don’t know how many Champions League, all while being considered one of the best players of that generation. If others have done, if I could do it, I don’t see why an African country will not win a World Cup. It’s even one of the easiest things to do. It’s just a couple of football matches. Why would that be impossible?”
Eto’o’s declaration that a World Cup should be attainable is controversial, but in the 2026 World Cup those chances will improve with an increased number of teams.
Eto’o watched Cameroon lose its semifinal match against Egypt in AFCON on home soil, so he will be hoping that Cameroon will be able to avenge their defeat on the world’s biggest stage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Eto’o and Infantino’s objectives may definitely be merging to some degree. Eto’o may be selfishly rooting for Cameroon to be the first African nation to win the World Cup. Infantino is hopeful that significant financial commitment and project developments places the continent’s national teams in a position to reach for the previously unreachable.