The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been especially punishing for African sport. Bleak is an adjective that has been invariably used, with key actors having little confidence that their needs will be addressed. And, as a sombre backdrop to all this, the difficulty in proving widespread testing as well as track-and-trace capabilities will only aggrieve African sport junkies still further.
The gloomy forecast notwithstanding, all is not lost. Although African sport is surrounded by events that are increasingly hostile to it, governing bodies of different sporting disciplines continue to meticulously argue that they are rooted in an acute understanding of the epidemiology of Covid-19. The tone and approach might be strikingly different, but the message remains the same. It holds out the promise of a gradual return to a semblance of normality.
Take these two cents from Confederation of African Football (Caf) president, Ahmad Ahmad, in a Monday Zoom video-call to stakeholders: “Health is our number one priority. We must remain vigilant.” The vigilance will be deeply appreciated by the World Health Organisation whose dread of a second wave of coronavirus infections is well documented. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story. There are too many layers to unpack from what is by all means a complex story.
First things first, football is undoubtedly the number one sport in Africa. The beautiful game has produced moments of magic that linger forever in the memory. It should come as no vulgar surprise that pre-Covid-19 the sport sought fans out as much as they did it. Despite Covid-19 giving life as we know it a grave and dramatic edge, football should retain its coveted status on the continent.
Administrators will however have to demonstrate a peerless ability to adapt to changing circumstances to ensure that the position doesn’t have a strangely hollow feel.
Little wonder, the solemnity of Ahmad Ahmad’s tone was easy to pick out when he revealed this past week how Caf’s flagship events will be staggered post-lockdown.
The Caf president said that having to play two Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in successive years (2022 and 2023), with a Fifa World Cup in-between for good measure, was enforced.
There is no disputing this, really. Changes have been projected on to Caf rather than, or as well as, projected by Caf. African football’s governing body should nevertheless be mindful of the fact that it has put itself in a place where it will have to run the table to win.
This is already starting to feel like a lost opportunity. Given the struggles that world football powerhouses had the last – and only – time a World Cup was held entirely in Asia (South Korea and Japan 2002), Africa had every reason to brim with confidence. There was an outside chance that the much-maligned continent would shake the monkey off its back when the global football showpiece makes a stopover in Qatar in 2022.
It’s early days yet, and sure enough Caf just got dealt a bad hand, but predisposing its players to burnout is certainly not a bright idea. The failure of several African football federations to wrap their heads around the concept of load management further exacerbates things.
This basically makes it plausible for errors to arise in ways that are both easy and difficult to understand. What this means is that the picture that Africa will paint at Qatar 2022 may hardly be soft on the eye.
All indications are that 2022 will be an exhausting year for Africa’s top players. They will commence the year by taking part in a 24-nation Afcon finals tournament. After that, club commitments will doubtless leave them so weary, so knackered, as to be almost bruised by the time the World Cup gets under way at the backend of 2022.
You will surely have to be a brave, if naive, punter to hedge your bets on any of Africa’s five representatives faring reasonably well in Qatar’s football cauldrons.