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AFCON expert exclusive: Ivory Coast legacy; global potential; where things can improve

What do you do, when you are searching for a book to enlighten you on the history of an international football tournament, and you don't find one? For Ben Jackson the answer was straight forward. He wrote it himself.

That is the simple background for "The Africa Cup of Nations – the history of an underappreciated tournament", as Jackson tells when hooking up for a lengthy conversation about a tournament never short of controversy.

"I'm fascinated by African history in itself, not just football, and I did my master's in African politics as well," says Jackson who in Pitch Publishing found a publisher only too happy to accommodate his wish of writing a book.

Thus, Jackson dived into not least the abundance of material in the FIFA Museum in Zürich, and came up with a complete tale of the AFCON from the start up to the latest edition in 2022. But what does he make of the current tournament in the Ivory Coast? And can we look forward to a lasting legacy from the $1 billion invested by the Ivory Coast in their stadia and infrastructure for this 2024 tournament?

"It's been one of the better ones in terms of fan attendance in the stadium. We've had some mediocre attendances in previous editions where you really do notice it in the stadiums, when the host nation is not playing," says Jackson.

"This time the bordering countries have really been able to get there and support their teams. All in all, Ivory Coast have hosted pretty well. We haven't had much controversy and it's been a good one watching".

Is there a lasting impact for nations hosting the AFCON?

"I'm not sure. Recent hosts like Egypt and Cameroon are already established nations and then there've been countries like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon who haven't done much from hosting it. I'll be interested to see what sort of impact is has on the Ivory Coast because this tournament has clearly captured the imagination of fans. But they are one of those nations that's always been a footballing nation anyway".

Is there an untapped potential of AFCON in terms of revenue and earnings?

"Definitely. I feel like this tournament should show that if you can make it accessible to other nations to get to the country and go and watch the games it makes the atmosphere entertaining and engrossing to watch".

If you had an unlimited budget, what would you introduce to have AFCON fulfil its potential?

"I'd probably focus mostly on the pitches. Pitches have been the downfall of many an AFCON in the past. Thinking back to 2013 one of the pitches got so bad it completely changed how teams had to play.

"Another thing is investing in African coaching and giving them the ability and the pathway to make it into leading their national teams. We get a lot of the same names going round and round that aren't from Africa. There may be some very good African coaches on the continent that just don't get the chance".

Defending champions, Senegal, and Egypt went out early. What happened?

"The whole of North Africa didn't do well and they haven't done well in sub-Saharan settings very often. Senegal just looked too good in the group stages. Having researched the tournament, I found that there are lots of examples of teams that start really well and then they'll fall at the first hurdle.

"Last time Senegal was terrible in the group stages, but won the tournament. This time the Ivory Coast were terrible in the group yet made the semifinals. That's just the history of the tournament".

Morocco did so well at the last World Cup but disappointed big here. That is not the first time we see an African nation doing well at the World Cup only to fall short at an AFCON. Why do you think that is?

"There is something about the level of competition at AFCON. It just feels like the great kind of leveller of the playing field. You get players from the third division of Spain just going up against a Cote d'Ivoire side with players in Serie A and Ligue 1 and just wipe the floor with them.

"They have this desire and competitiveness of "we are going to punch you in the mouth because we know we're the underdogs". That happens a lot at AFCON, it's just really tricky".

We had eight new quarter finalists compared to just two years ago. Is this a good or bad thing?

"I find the debate really interesting because I've seen some people say it's a bad thing in the sense that their strong African teams aren't actually that strong, which is why they struggle when they go to World Cups.

"But for the AFCON I think it's great because it's inspiring generations of players from these countries. Some of these nations will never make a World Cup, but they get to celebrate success at an AFCON. Personally, I think it's great, it just adds to the drama and the storylines which is really, really important".

South African football has struggled since the turn of the century, but they're into the semifinals. Is that a surprise for you?

"It's part surprise, but also part "finally"! This nation completely dropped the ball. They have a really strong domestic league and players don't really leave South Africa because financially they get paid very well.

"But going into this tournament I actually felt they were going to do well. There's something in this team. They weren't great against Cape Verde, but Ronwen Williams was just incredible throughout the game. I didn't see them getting to the final, but I had them as a dark horse".

Even for AFCON standards, it's a pretty bold move to sack your coach while the tournament is going on. Can the Ivory Coast actually go and win it now?

"After what they did against Mali, who's going to bet against them? DR Congo will have to take their chances as Mali failed to do. It's a very, very good team, but one way or the other it's going to be dramatic".

What has been your impression of Nigeria?

"They're a really interesting one for me. Before the tournament, I had no confidence in the coach, to be honest. I didn't see him as kind of the coach that would win an AFCON tournament. He's proven me wrong so far.

"Osimhen has been playing really well and he's probably been their best player. But there's just something there, which I can't get my head around. I just feel there's a bad Nigeria game coming".

Who's been the player of the tournament so far?

"I think there's a few. Fofana is one, Ola Aina as well. Chancel Mbembe from DR Congo also deserves a lot of credit. I've been really impressed with his performances at the back for the Congolese. Also, Ronwen Williams who has made some key saves".

Who will win the AFCON 2023?

"I think the Ivory Coast will win it".
Ben Jackson's "The Africa Cup of Nations – the history of an underappreciated tournament" is available with Pitch Publishing here.

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Jacob Hansen


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