The Africa Cup of Nations is the latest international sports event to become embroiled in a debate about rescheduling in the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Olympics, the Euros and the Copa America, all scheduled for this summer, have already been put back a year.
The Cup of Nations — CAN to give it its acronym in French — is set for the start of 2021 in Cameroon, but several leading figures in African football are pleading for a postponement.
Others worry that the likely traffic jam in the 2021 football calendar means they will struggle to find other “free slots”.
Cameroon was originally scheduled to host the event in the summer of 2019 but Ahmad Ahmad, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), decided the hosts were not ready and moved the tournament to Egypt. That gave Cameroon two extra years to prepare.
After experimenting with a summer tournament in Egypt, CAF has returned to the winter slot, so unpopular with the European clubs, and the event is scheduled to run from January 9 to February 6, 2021.
“The most important thing is health, and the African football authorities have understood that. I don’t see my elder brother Ahmad risking the health of football lovers for an Africa Cup of Nations,” former Cameroon captain Samuel Eto’o told France 24 at the end of April.
“The most important thing is that we are out of danger. We’ll have plenty of time to organise this CAN,” he added.
Two days later, Algeria midfielder Adlene Guedioura, a member of the country’s title-winning squad in 2019, agreed.
“I know that Africa Cup of Nations is important and it’s good for the countries to organise it but this one in 2021, I think it should be cancelled or postponed,” he told the BBC.
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Officially, the virus has caused fewer than 2,500 deaths in Africa, but there are signs that the death toll is being seriously underestimated, particularly in Nigeria.
“As we see the ratio of tests that have been carried out in these countries, it is always alarming because we lack visibility in the management of this pandemic,” Ahmad told Deutsche Welle last Friday.
Beyond the threat from Covid-19, the failure to complete the pre-tournament qualifiers is also worrying African leaders with four rounds of games remaining.
“If we have trouble organising qualifiers before September, it would be difficult to hold the final tournament next January,” wrote Augustin Senghor, president of the Senegalese FA, in an internal CAF newsletter in early May.
In Cameroon, where the national league was declared over last week with six rounds of matches still to play, the virus is posing problems in checking on the host nation’s readiness.
“The Cup of Nations will no longer be able to take place in January. Our borders are closed and no CAF inspection mission is possible,” a Cameroonian football official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
– ‘We must wait’ –
Ahmad refused to commit, telling Deutsche Welle: “Our priority is first and foremost health, protecting players, protecting officials, and protecting the public.”
“We must wait,” he said.
FIFA, the governing body of world football, set up a working group in March to “agree on a coordinated approach” to the international schedule.
That makes it difficult for CAF to act alone.
“For the time being, we are on standby, monitoring the situation closely. If necessary, the postponement of a competition will be discussed in due course,” CAF’s general secretariat said in an e-mail to AFP.
There are voices arguing the tournament should kick off on schedule.
“It’s out of the question to touch it,” one African football leader told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Between the Euro, the Tokyo Olympics and other competitions postponed to 2021, there are no more free slots. Even a postponement to March is complicated because European clubs will never want to let the players go.”
The players want to play.
“Personally, I’m not in favour of postponement,” Stephane Bahoken, a Cameroonian international striker who plays for Angers in France, told RFI. “It’s a real headache.”
But, he added: “As long as we play it at home, I’m happy!”