The just-concluded Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), more than any other in recent memory, was defined by feel-good stories.
Success of minnows is no validation of 24-team AFCON format
Does the sheer number of upsets at the Cup of Nations in Cameroon prove it was a good idea to broaden the competition’s field?
Debutants Gambia were the obvious highlight, reaching the Quarter-finals and gaining eye-catching victories against Tunisia and Guinea along the way. The Scorpions played an effective counterattacking style that relied on defensive discipline and the pace of their forwards, and in doing so captured the imaginations of many.
The misfortune in the premises of the Olembe Stadium on January 25th put a dampener on events inside the stadium, but no one will forget Comoros’ run – complete with the stunning win over Ghana and a left-back in goal in the biggest match in their history – in a hurry. Sierra Leone came earned points against Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire and came within a penalty kick of advancing to the knockout stages. Malawi led for 40 minutes of their Round of 16 clash with Morocco.
To hear observers tell it, the successes of these lesser sides is proof-positive of the necessity of the 24-team format. Gambia aside, these were, after all, teams that would not have been in Cameroon to begin with had the tournament fielded 16 teams only. The fact they more than held their own was apparently a vindication of CAF’s decision to enlarge the field.
This argument largely misses the point though, in that it manages to misunderstand both the substance of the opposition to that change and the nature of tournament football itself.
There is a reason upsets are likelier to happen in tournament play than during, say, qualifiers.
For one thing, with the benefit of extended prep time, smaller teams are able to create the synergy that allows them better compete against teams with qualitative advantages. There is also the fact that the 24-team format incentivises defensive play, and this, in turn, favours the smaller teams: it is easier to destroy than to construct, so by shifting the onus onto the bigger side, minnows can keep matches tight and play the odds.
This is why tournament football is not a foolproof demonstration of the quality of teams. The margins are just so fine.
Perhaps the bigger issue though is the willful misunderstanding is of the argument against.
Pointing to the success of smaller teams would be relevant if the concern was a potential loss of competitiveness as a result of admitting them. However, the actual opposition has been over a potential drop in quality overall, and actually, the numbers bear out that reservation.
While there are a number of different proxies for the overall quality of football, a simple, useful one is the average of goals scored per match. If the object of the game is to score, then it stands to reason that failing to score indicates the game is not being played particularly well.
The 2021 AFCON was, on average, the lowest-scoring tournament in 20 years, with 1.92 goals scored per match. It is also the fifth-lowest scoring in history: only the 1988, 1990, 1992 and 2002 editions witnessed fewer on average.
Interestingly, it follows the 2019 edition, which is the seventh-lowest scoring.
As far as goalscoring goes, there have been two clear periods of wallowing below the historical average. The first came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and roughly corresponds with the global trend: it was in response to this downturn that the backpass rule was introduced in 1992, outlawing goalkeepers picking up backpasses. As it did everywhere else, it had the effect of rectifying the flagging goals per game average at AFCON, tacking on an extra 0.5 goals per game – to that point the biggest bump between editions since 1962.
The second period is the present day.
While it would be a stretch to say that the ballooning of participants is the cause, it certainly has not made things any better. Even with the benefit of penalty goals – 10, a tally only bettered by the 11 scored in the 2008 tournament in Ghana – the average has taken a further dip from last time.
However, the current slide is part of an overall downward trend, so perhaps it is a little early to know for sure. The true test will be what happens in the 2023 tournament in Cote d’Ivoire.
Until then, while it can be considered premature to assume the continued decline is down to the bigger field, it is even less founded to claim the format is a triumph on the basis of a handful of overachievements by the continent’s less-storied nations. There have been upsets at AFCON and there will always be, even more so now when there are more spots up for grabs.