COMMENT

AFCON should not have a two-year interval, Senegal win shows it

On Sunday night, Senegal put behind them decades of hurt and finally drank the cup of triumph.

Les Dakarois savourent pleinement la victoire du Sénégal en Coupe d'Afrique

The manner of their victory over Egypt was fitting in many ways too.

It was via penalties that their previous golden generation had fallen agonizingly short in Bamako 20 years before. It seemed only proper then that redemption would come in that most charged and dramatic of deciders.

There was also the fact of the contest itself, as both teams set their stalls out from the start. Soon as a pattern became discernible, there was only one party trying to seize the moment, and it was not Egypt. That the Pharaohs came so close regardless speaks to their resolve, but it would have felt like a miscarriage of justice had they – for the third time in the tournament – triumphed in the shoot-out.

So, as Senegal paraded through the streets of Dakar, a mammoth crowd ebbing against the sides of their open-top bus like waves of the sea, the sense of pride and satisfaction will have been total.

The scenes were truly remarkable to behold: the unbridled joy, the abandon, a mass of humanity exulting in a moment of ecstasy. It was beautiful, the perfect argument – if one was ever needed – for the continued existence and relevance of international football.

If there was a slight downer, it came with the realisation that, in roughly 16 months, Senegal will have to put it up again.

This is a legacy of the initial decision to move the 2021 AFCON twice, and it marks the second truncated reign of the last 10 years – recall that, in 2012, Zambia only held their crown for a year as a result of the decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to move the tournament from even to odd years. However, even a normal cycle still only gives two years between tournaments.

That is simply too small a length of time.

Senegal’s success makes this point quite strongly, from two different standpoints.

Put yourself in Senegal’s shoes for a minute.

You have waited this long, waded through the muck of underperformance and disappointment, and have finally emerged on the other side clean and smelling of roses.

Would you not want to admire the view for a little bit? Take it all in? Bask?

By staging AFCON every two years, title reigns are barely worthy of the name. It is a reality that fewer people can live, a legacy that is much too fleeting.

But what about, say, the Champions League, or even league titles? Aren’t they defended yearly? Well, yes, but that is comparing apples with oranges: a league season has enough matches, each pregnant with storylines and implication, that a campaign can feel like a lifetime compared to the span of a year in international football where, in non-tournament years, teams will play between six and 10 matches in total. The same applies for the Champions League.

The upshot of this two-year interval is that, often, the champions are still so jaded by celebrating the success that they make a hash of the defence. It is no coincidence that two of the only three nations to have successfully retained the AFCON had won it multiple times before, and so were less likely to be carried away with the euphoria of it all.

Spare a thought for Zambia, whose triumph in 2012 came with such an emotional outpouring that 12 months later they could barely assert themselves, drawing all three matches in 2013. It will be interesting to see how Senegal manage the comedown next year in Cote d’Ivoire.

This present Senegal crop have come a long way under Aliou Cisse’s guidance, and now stand atop the mountain that undermined their forebears.

However, this is essentially their third bite at the cherry. For context, if the AFCON was quadrennial like the Euros or the World Cup, three tries would take in a 12-year period, which is about the length of a professional football career. Within that framework, this Senegal side would have looked very different indeed in their third go-around.

By staging AFCON every two years, the continent’s biggest stars essentially have double the opportunity to reach greatness. However, is this really a good thing?

The other side of that double-edged sword is that the stakes are immediately lower when you know you will be back in two years for another go. Eliminations will hurt in the moment, naturally, but at the back of the mind, there will be a consciousness that amends can be made fairly quickly. That strips a lot of the tension away, and might even function as an out subconsciously.

Of course, even with that, there are no guarantees: a player like Didier Drogba famously never managed to reach that summit. However, he did get a whopping five tries.

Having a talented group is enough of an advantage that it should not need statistical probability alongside.

Knowing you will likely only get three opportunities to create a legacy not only makes it hurt more when you fail, but it also makes it mean more when you succeed.

Of course, there are good arguments – mostly financial – for a two-year cycle, and it is nigh-on impossible for CAF to alter that interval either now or at any point in the future. However, there are alternatives: making regional competitions a bigger deal, for example, and ploughing more resources into club competitions (national and continental) to pick up the development slack.

Are these likely to happen? Probably not. Which is a shame in itself.

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