The African Championship of Nations (CHAN) is one of the youngest and lesser known continental competitions in the world. Started in 2009, the competition brings together national teams from across Africa featuring players from local league competitions only.
The inaugural competition took place in the Ivory Coast in 2009 with eight teams making it to the finals out of 30 nations that participated in the qualifiers, The Democratic Republic of Congo emerged as winners and the success of the tournament prompted CAF to expand it with 16 teams competing in the second edition held in Sudan in 2011. This time, four newcomers to the competition made it to the semi-finals; hosts Sudan, Angola, Algeria and the eventual winners Tunisia who had knocked out title holders Congo DR in the quarter-finals.
Further success followed with FIFA recognizing the competition and matches counting as full international games starting from the 2014 edition which was planned to be held in Libya, but the breakout of civil war in the north African country saw the tournament moving to South Africa which was fully prepared to host the event having organized the world cup only four years earlier. The hosts were knocked out in the group stage as dark horses Libya were crowned champions after beating Ghana in the final.
When CAF first announced the introduction of CHAN in 2007, they hoped it would achieve two main targets; “We strive to give to the local African players the possibility to showcase their talents and abilities” Said CAF president Issa Hayatou “also to bring to a higher level the national championships in Africa, and to boost their importance”.
The first three editions of the CHAN have more or less delivered on the promise of providing a platform for up and coming talents as many of the better performers of each tournament have made a step into the next level; Zambian forward Given Singuluma, top goalscorer in 2009 secured a move from Zanaco of Zambia to TP Mazembe of Congo DR, arguably Africa’s best team in the past few years, defender Ibrahim Ayew moved from Ghanaian unknowns Sekondi Wise to Egyptian giants Zamalek and one year later he was plying his trade in Belgium with Lierse and by then had become a full international for Ghana and is now likely to be in the squad travelling to Brazil for the world cup this summer. The 2011 version drew more attention from European clubs and topscorer, Algerian forward El Arbi Hillel Soudani was snapped up by Portuguese side Vitória Guimarães while player of the tournament, Tunisia’s Zouheir Dhaouadi moved to Ligue 1 outfit Evian TG. Star of the latest version, Nigerian winger Ejike Uzoenyi signed for the South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns but will stay on loan with current club Enugu Rangers until the end of the season.
Clearly the CHAN is yet to produce the next Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o and none of its alumni has made it into a top European club, but the early signs are encouraging and CAF would do well to pursue further improvements to the competition. Increasing the number of teams from 8 to 16 was definitely a positive move but of more significance was the adoption of “geographic zones” system in the qualifiers; the continent has been split into six distinct geographic zones and each was allocated a set number of seats in the finals. This system allows more opportunities for minnows to make a name for themselves among the best in the continent. Mauritania is already reaping the benefit of the zones system, registering an appearance in CHAN2014 at the expense of Senegal, and while they finished bottom of their group at the finals with no points, the experience will be a valuable one for the future and CAF secretary general, Hicham El Amarani shares this opinion, “Caf are happy with the performance of newcomers like Mauritania” he added, “This is very good for the tournament which is helping develop African football.”
North Zone (allocated two seats in the finals) has traditionally had stronger domestic leagues thanks to stronger economies and socio-political stability compared to sub-Saharan regions. Despite containing only 5 countries, clubs from this region boast more CAF champions league titles (27) than the rest of the continent combined (21). Competitions like the Tunisian League have long been a magnet for African youngsters looking for a gateway into Europe and the Egyptian national team has a proud tradition of winning the African Cup of Nations (CAN), lifting the continent’s most prized trophy a record seven times with squads made up almost entirely of locally based players. While Egypt is yet to participate in any of the previous versions, the region has already presented a gold medallist in CHAN 2014 heroes, Libya.
West Zone (A) is a curious case where Mali, Senegal and to a lesser extent Guinea are major talent pools for European clubs, the rest of the region lags way behind and countries such as Mauritania, The Gambia and Sierra Leone are hardly ever heard of in the football world (Former Inter Milan forward Mohamed Kallon being the notable exception for the latter), the region has never won the CAN and only one club from Guinea have had their hands on the Champions League trophy back in the 1970s.
West Zone (B) is home to Africa’s most coveted talents with powerhouses such as Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. It contains seven nations and is allocated two places in the finals. Domestic club competitions in this region are of lower quality due to continuous talent drain to top (and not so top) European clubs over the years, it continues to lead the line in terms of African player exports with nearly 40% of African players in Europe coming from this zone. CHAN’s additional target for this region will be to enable the likes of Niger and Benin to compete better against their stronger neighbours.
Central zone, with three seats fought between its eight nations, is home to Cameroon, one of the most successful nations in Africa with 5 Champions league titles to its clubs and 4 CAN cups for the national team. The region’s endless civil wars meant that countries like Chad and Central African Republic have football at the bottom of their priorities as evident by their withdrawal from the most recent competition and their continued inability to host international games and that could be a challenge just out of CAF’s hands.
All bottom four ranked teams in Africa hail from the Central-Eastern Zone, and apart from two victories in the early days of CAN for Ethiopia and my home country, Sudan, the region has won nothing and it is by far the poorest part of Africa, both economically and in football terms, you would struggle to name three players out of this region playing in Europe. To their credit, all 10 nations of this region have participated in the qualifiers and even war torn countries like Somalia and South Sudan have fought for one of the three finals seats, this is a region with a high potential of benefiting from the development of CHAN and it is regularly tipped as the next goldmine of talents in Africa.
Finally, the southern zone with 11 federations participating and three absentees is the largest in Africa and by all means the continent’s underachiever with one Champions League title and two CAN trophies. One would expect a region featuring two of Africa’s biggest economies in South Africa and Oil rich Angola in addition to football-passionate Zambia to have achieved much more especially given the higher level of facilities available and being one of the most stable parts of the Dark Continent. The South African Premier League is the richest and one of the most professionally run in Africa. But where is the problem? “The top class infrastructure is at professional level” says Clyde Tlou, South Africa based specialised journalist, “there is no structure on grassroots level, the talent pipeline has dried up”. Ignat Manjoo, South Africa chief editor at Goal.com sees hope for the country “Our current challenge is to use the vast funds from the World Cup and channel them properly into development.” CAF has an important role to play in developing football in the Southern part of Africa and CHAN is a big part of their strategy.
South Africa has been criticized for its lack of cooperation with CAF during the 2014 edition it hosted as they continued the domestic league matches during the CHAN resulting in local clubs refusing to release players for participation with the national team, the Bafana-Bafana were knocked out from the first round as a result and the attendance levels were poor throughout the competition. CAF has taken note and the regulations are set for a change that will require host nations to suspend local league for the duration of the competition.
A common challenge across the continent will be to increase participation levels; only 31 teams took part in the most recent qualifiers out of 54 CAF members, increasing the number of teams in the qualifiers will mean developing competition across more national leagues and providing the opportunity for players from countries such Comoros, Chad and Mauritius to showcase their talents. The inter-African transfer market is ever-growing and it is not uncommon nowadays to see a Zimbabwean forward play for a Libyan club or a Malian youngster in the Sudanese league, CHAN will provide clubs who are mostly unable to send scouts to watch domestic leagues elsewhere with a platform to watch the best of Africa in one place and an increased transfer activity within the continent would generate more income to selling clubs while still maintaining the talent in Africa, this is already evident from the latest tournament in South Africa as Manjoo points out “[South African]Clubs were scouting all national teams.” he said, “[They signed] immediate deals and some starting next season”.
Last but not least, hosting the CHAN in new places across Africa and extending it to more cities in each country could be vital in helping to develop football and general infrastructure in the continent. Unfortunately, the 2009 version in the Ivory Coast was hosted in two cities only, the capital Abidjan and Bouake which already had established stadia and decent infrastructure compared to the rest of the country. In 2011, however, Sudan set an example by splitting the games between four different cities, whereas previously all international games were played either in Khartoum, the capital, or in Umdorman, home to the two biggest clubs in the country and its biggest two stadiums. Hosting of some games in Port Sudan and Wad Madani represented a big step for the two cities which had to work on their hotels and renovate the stadiums before the tournament arrives into town, this is a model CAF is determined to follow in the 2016 tournament planned to be held in Rwanda.