AFCON and the Power of Unity

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This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on March 7, 2024. Listen to the podcast here.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Welcome to Into Africa. My name is Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. I'm a Senior Fellow and the Director for the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This is a podcast where we talk everything Africa, politics, economics, security, and culture. Welcome.

What a comeback it has been for Côte d'Ivoire. They first hosted the 14th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, in 1984 with only eight participating countries, that unfortunately Côte d'Ivoire had an early exit. AFCON 2023 was their first redemption. From January to early February 2024, Côte d'Ivoire hosted the 34th edition of the tournament with 24 participating countries and emerged as the champions, defeating Nigeria two to one in the finals. The event was a whirlwind of emotions and tensions that gained global attention and recognition with a viewership of over two billion individuals, compared to the American Super Bowl, 120 million.

A particularly surprising achievement was the successful hosting of AFCON by Côte d'Ivoire despite the insecurity and insurgency that has affected the western part of Africa. 54 teams registered, but only 24 teams qualified and participated in the football tournament, which was originally scheduled for June to July 2023 but was later moved to 2024 to avoid adverse weather conditions. The tournament consisted of 52 matches held in five cities, Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, Bouaké, San Pedro, and Korhogo. The country spent over one billion dollars on infrastructure, including the construction of four new stadiums, the renovation of two others, roads, hotels, and other necessary infrastructure.

The game was also caught in political highlight. For instance, when DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo players staged a protest in solidarity to the victims of violence in the eastern part of DRC where there is a rebellion staged by a group called the M23. The games also witnessed the presence of great footballers from various countries showed up. This includes Victor Osimhen from Nigeria, Sadio Mané from Senegal, Achraf Hakimi from Morocco, and many others. The tournament proved to be a triumph, as it showcased the abundance of talent and potential of Africa to the international community, refuting the prevailing notion that Africa is a dark continent.

Joining me to dissect AFCON 2024 is Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, Research Analyst at the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria. Afolabi, welcome to Into Africa.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Thank you for having me. It's good to be here.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: You followed this very closely. The rest of us were seeing this from the distance. What were your first impressions or the lasting impressions that you have of AFCON 2024?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: So, I think AFCON has usually been cited as a very good example of pan-African unity. So it's one of the few institutions that actively tries to bring as many people on the continent together and in recent years has done a very good job of also bringing people from outside the continent to really share and to really enjoy in the talents that are being put on display. So I think on that note, AFCON 2023 was a really successful endeavor. You know, we also saw a lot more attention, a lot more coverage, and a lot more focus on what was going on the sport in the area. We also discussed the improved and increased infrastructure investment that was carried about by Côte d'Ivoire. We saw, you know, more stadiums, really modern stadiums that were used to host the matches, but we've also seen quite a lot of different upsets.

So I think one thing mostly other than previous tournaments that this AFCON will be known for was the fact that there were many, you know, quote unquote, many of Africa football teams that really asserted themselves throughout the course of the tournament. We had, you know, Cape Verde that reached, the quarter finals. We had Angola as well that really went far. Uh, we saw traditional giants such as Senegal, Cameroon, Algeria, Morocco not even go past the second round. And we had a situation where the first five-round teams from the FIFA World Rankings in Africa did not make it to the last eight. So instead, we saw a lot more attention in terms of countries that were able to really develop and build their capacity.

Some, uh, very good success stories include Mauritania, who were able to go far, even defeated former champions, Algeria, in the process. And really just building these different structures to show that there are no easy games and there are no countries to be taken for, for granted. So I think ultimately what this AFCON really was able to build was the fact that there are no small games, there are no small countries, but then there is also a very robust level of investment going on in promoting African youth. And if we are able to translate that not just in sports, but across the board, then we could see a continent that develops the potential of its young population.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Afolabi, you talked about a lot of things there. One, it sounds like the pitch is an equalizer. It doesn't matter whether your country is as big as Sudan or big as Algeria or small as Senegal, it doesn't really matter. It's all about talent. Is that what I'm hearing?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Absolutely. But I think, more so than just talent, I think it's also about actually investing in that talent. So, we know that historically countries like Ghana and Cameroon, for example, are one of the most storied countries when it comes to AFCON. Ghana has four titles. Cameroon has five. Uh, the only country that has more than those two is Egypt, with seven. So we know that these are countries that are expected to be at the business end when it comes to these tournaments.

But then Ghana got knocked out from the group stages, you know, yet again. Uh, we saw Cameroon get knocked out in round 16. Now, one of the differences between these countries and other countries was the fact that there was clear investment in the domestic structure of the sports but also clear investments in how these players are being, you know, redeveloped. And I think that was a very good equalizer in terms of saying that we countries that have decided that they would not take for granted the fact that they are not new in having these trials, but then actively tried to develop their capacity to punch even harder. And I think what we might see in future tournaments is even a change of the guard, where you have even more countries that have not historically won the tournament getting to that business stage. And I think that's something that was really good to note from this particular tournament.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: It sounds to me that the games are played at the intersection, the nexus of sport, politics, and economics. A country that has a lot of talent will need to develop the talent. To develop the talent, you need investment. To develop the investment, you need a physical infrastructure. Why is it countries like Ghana that have had a great profile over the last two decades or so economically, which also have had, uh, traditionally great teams, or countries like Senegal, uh, struggle this time? Of course, I suspect it's talent that is rising, but it's also... Is there a little bit of lacking there? Or it's all of the above that come to, to add?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: I think it absolutely is the fact that... Well, first of all, AFCON doesn't respect, uh, structure. It doesn't respect statistics. it's usually just a very big equalizer. A very good example is that a Nigerian, Victor Osimhen, went through the entire tournament, you know, played every match, uh, and only scored one goal. He plays for Napoli, uh, actually some days ago in the UEFA Champions League, and he scored a goal during his first match returning. It's really just a case where there is no template to explain why a country or why a player does very well. It's simply just a case of how the so-called footballing gods decide to look down on a team.

But I think you touch on some very good points there. The first one is on investments and on infrastructure. Now, a growing question has been where many of these players have come from, whether they are from the domestic leagues or they are from foreign leagues. Quite a lot of conversations have also come to an issue of identity, so where many of the players are either coming from the diaspora or from the domestic pathways. And I think one think that's really important is really trying to consolidate this particular nexus. So, a country like Morocco, for example, Morocco reached the semifinal in the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar. And there was a very clear emphasis by the management, by the coach to make sure that players who came from across the gap even a player like Achraf Hakimi, who was actually born in Spain and actually scored the goal that knocked Spain out of the World Cup, having many of these players come back and feel like they are part of this very big project. And I think that's a really big step going forward.

But also, looking also at it domestically. You add in countries like South Africa that the bulk of their players, you know, play in, in the, uh, Premiere Soccer League. In fact, a very strong core play for ... and it toll on the page where the synergy, the collaboration, even just knowing where a player was going to move to was very telling. And that helped in their run to becoming, you know, to getting the bronze medal during the tournament. Even my native Algeria, our goalkeeper, Stanley Nwabali, wasn't somebody that was really well known before the tournaments, but then he plays in South Africa. And his ability to really control his area was something that many Nigerians really fell in love with throughout the tournament.

So I think it is a combination, not just in terms of investing in infrastructure, in terms of, okay, having the right facilities to get people to play and to get younger players coming through the ranks, but also looking at the divergence between the domestic and foreign leagues and being able to find a very good synergy. And eventual champions, Côte d'Ivoire, Sébastien Haller plays in Germany for Dortmund. Simon Adingra plays for Brighton in the United Kingdom. So you can see that there are still players that are really well known externally, but then also players that are domestic. And really making sure that at the end of the day, everybody felt part of a very big project, and everybody felt really African.

And I think it comes back to the major point, which is that, at the end of the day, it's about feeling that pride for your national team or for the continent. And that is something that the AFCON was really able to do very well.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: There are two antipodes there. One is a team like Morocco, that you describe heavily staffed with internationals, Moroccans who will play overseas, sometimes Moroccans who grew overseas and actually have other citizenship as well, and this is for other countries. And then on the other side, you described South Africa, which is on the other side of the spectrum, with a lot of playing players who do their career or make their career nationally, uh, in local teams. We have a big gap in between what is the state of local teams across the continent, because we come to see these two sides collide, so to speak?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: So one of the innovations that CAF, the Confederation of African Football, the body that governs football on the continent, has really tried to push is really leveraging on these domestic structures. So for example, I think Africa is the only continent that actually has an international tournament that is only... uh, is restricted to only players from domestic leagues, so that's the home based tournament. And having that kind of tournament really has helped in terms of countries being able to put forward teams that are completely use of their domestic leagues.

Senegal won that tournament last year, and then some very strong players from that team actually played for Senegal during this particular tournament, including, uh, Camara, who was in the midfield. So I think it's that level of trying to incorporate incentives to really build these domestic structures. There was also the launch of the so-called football league between eight very strong tournament... eight very strong teams, rather, on the continent, club teams. And the fact that FIFA and CAF have actively been working on getting more investment to really give the teams that win or take part some more financial incentives to really take part. And the idea is that hopefully with more money coming into these particular structures, then there would be better levels of development within the continent.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, many of these strong stars who are playing will end up getting, you know, signed for the more prominent and the more established international, foreign clubs. But the idea is to always have that pathway and that conveyor belt going forward. And I think that what we are seeing is also an appreciation that style isn't particularly restricted anywhere. So, a lot of articles that I read looked at the fact that many teams did not have very strong midfields. So you will find this tactic where the ball just really floated from the defense to the attack and hoping that the attacker will be... would get the ball, get down, and then score a goal. But then, that's usually because it's usually very difficult to, to get these patterns going, when players only come for a couple of weeks or, or, or even a couple of weekends at a time, and then they go back to their clubs. And then they play particularly a different style or even a different position.

Someone like Emilio Nsue, who ends the tournament as the highest-goal scorer, you know, plays for Equatorial Guinea. He plays as the defender in a club in the Spanish tier, so you can see that difference in position there. Even in Nigeria, you know, Mikel John Obi, when Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations in 2013 in South Africa, you know, he was more of an attacking for them, but he played more in defense for Chelsea, as a defensive midfielder. So it's looking at these different structures, right? And I think that that's why, in the case of South Africa where you had players who had played together for almost the entire season, and that level of connection really played a very big part in how they were able to come through. And when you look at even players like... Even when you look at Morocco, the other example that I said, I think what is very key is now making sure that when you are looking at the training, looking at the management, we now have structures that actively monitor and really push on this way forward.

And I think a very good example is now bringing in the question of home-base coaches. So one interesting fact is that the last three tournaments have all been won by African coaches from the countries from there. So you have Belmadi from Algeria in 2019, you've got Aliou Cissé from Senegal 2021, and then Emerse Faé from Côte d'Ivoire this time around. And what you've seen is that many of these coaches rather have been able to walk on, really building that synergy between foreign, more established patterns in other clubs and then domestic leagues. So I think it's really about merging the two and really making sure that there's a stronger synergy between these two different structures to ensure more successful outings.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Cohesion of national team, a main challenge, because players are drawn from different quarters of the world for all of these big, uh, big clubs, and then they try to build a national unity, the national team, and, uh, tried to have the talent mesh properly. I can imagine that will continue to be a big challenge, especially if these players continue to come back from outside. What does winning the African mean for Côte d'Ivoire?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: I mean, it goes without saying, this was a fairytale story, right? So, I'm Nigerian, but I can also sympathize, and I can definitely relate to the fact that even the neutral would be more supportive of the Côte d'Ivoire when you had a player who was coming back from cancer, who scored the winning goals in the semi-final and the final. You had a country that was on the brink of getting eliminated from its own home tournament, you know, getting through one of the best, third place teams, and then reaching the final and then winning on home soil. It's a dream for any player, for any organizer, but even for any fan, and I think that's really something that can help kickstart and build momentum for a country.

Historically, we look at in politicians, you know, there's been that boost when it comes to a tournament, to a tournament win and then that level of support and that feel-good factor that really comes across with the country. But I think for Côte d'Ivoire, one thing that really stands out is the fact that a lot was made about the infrastructure investments. A lot was made about the billion dollars that had been put into the rails, to the stadiums. And what this now shows is that there has been on a return on investment. And what this will now do is encourage much more investment, hopefully, while looking at even incorporating many of the domestic teams into the many league structures that were built. One of the local teams in Abidjan moved into one of the several training centers that we used for the tournament within weeks of the tournament ending.

And it's that kind of concerted work that can really help to kickstart or really jump the way a, a country's domestic fortunes look. Even if we look at South Africa, for example, a very good example, in 1996 when they won the AFCON, that really helped build their domestic league. In 2010, they hosted World Cup. The level of momentum and investment really built from there. And now, we have seen the dividends in terms of how their team is now performing even better. So I think ultimately you're really after the feel-good factor in the country. Everybody likes a win (laughs). Everybody likes to, you know, to, to have that feel when an entire country is even doing very well, and I think that it could only be better for Côte d'Ivoire.

Côte d'Ivoire is going to go into a very, you know, interesting period politically. The election's next year. There's uncertainty on if the president will seek reelection, and there are questions around even its neighbors, some of whom are going through different unconstitutional transitions in power. But it's really a case where at least for this moment in time, there is that concerted remembrance that, "Look, if you are Ivorian, right now you are African champions, and we can work together to build this country into something even more.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: It is clear that important event like AFCON help unify countries, but those events only last so long. And then you revert to the status quo, politically and otherwise. And also pointing of fingers start and say, "How did much did we spend on this? Was it worth it? How much was inappropriately spent? How much was embezzled,” and so on. Do we see that kind of discussion taking place now?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: I think what is really important is that going forward, there needs to be stronger scrutiny or stronger oversight into how this is done. So, the recent AFCON tournaments have predominantly been hosted in countries that have had … leaders, so you're looking at Cameroon with long-time leader, Paul Biya, Equatorial Guinea with the Nguema family, even in Egypt with El-Sisi. And when you're looking at many of these different structures, what you find is that you find leaders who know that there is utility in being able to host a tournament. And If you throw money at these different structures, you can really help to at least boost that structure for a while.

But then people usually look at where the money is going to go to afterwards. You have countries like Brazil, that have hosted, you know, the World Cup or the Olympics, and then the structures have become, you know, elephant graveyards over the last couple of years. So one of the important questions is now where that investment goes to afterwards. And I think it's a really important point to, to focus on, especially for Côte d'Ivoire.

The stadium in, uh, Ebimpé, the stadium named after the, the current president, there's no set tenants moving in after the AFCON. So it's like it's where, for example, in South Africa, you know, we saw a team moving into to Soccer City after the World Cup. So there needs to be some more questions in terms of making sure that these investments are sustainable. So, like, if we are doing the next tournament, you have to now build more stadiums. So I think that's a really key point there.

But then even going beyond that, it's now a case of making sure that when the investment comes in, especially when in comes from international organizations like CAF and FIFA, who will have to put some money down to really ensure that the tournament is as successful as it needs to be, that there's stronger, um, oversight in terms of how these football organizations and associations actually manage the money, in terms of either money for increasing the level of exposure for women's football, for example. You know, funny enough, people are not mindful of the fact that there is also a, a woman's AFCON taking place this year as well. Um, and they even tried to look at increasing that graph of development, making sure that the lower cadets of, of football are... the people who play very well, they are actually able to, to go into the national team and do very well.

One of the biggest, sad ironies of this particular fact is Nigeria. Nigeria has won the Under-17 FIFA World Cup five times. No other country has done as much or as well. But Nigeria has not even broken through to the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup. So it's these different points of making sure that that level of investment is followed through across the line, not just at the beginning, but also going forward. And I think that's where Côte d'Ivoire really needs to, to focus on, especially when the, the, the buzz from winning settles down. That needs to be the next step, to make sure that they can actually build on the momentum of this victory.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: What you've described is a situation where... can raise a lot of potential issues. People are happy one day. The next day, it... Well, it breeds discontent. People are asking why we spent so much money. And then how do put the infrastructure to good use beyond the games. There is also an element of wondering are there many African countries then that can hold this type of tournament? We know we have a lot of rich countries in Africa, but the money is not always particularly well managed. So do you see a Nigeria or DRC pulling off something like this?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Absolutely. But I think what is even more interesting is there seems to be a concerted attempt by CAF to really move the tournament around. So over the last couple of, of decades really, what we've seen is that the tournament has largely been, uh, Central, West Africa, the occasional North Africa hosting, but then it's predominantly been a case where it's been restricted to, to these particular regions. Before, I think the last tournament held in Southern Africa was Angola in 2010. You even go back to the 1970s to look at the last one in Eastern Africa.

So where there is an effort now is that the next tournament, next year will be Morocco. The one after that will be hosted by Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, which is the first time it's going back to Eastern Africa in, in a while. So, I think there is an effort to really try to ensure that there's much more of a rotation so that many parts of the continent can really feel the excitement that comes with an AFCON. But wh... In light of that opportunity, the capacity to host, I think one thing that CAF is now actively leveraging on is the incentive of having joint hosts.

So, the first time we had joint hosts was in was in 2000, when Nigeria and Ghana co-hosted it. But then that was when they stepped in for Zimbabwe that was meant to host it at that time, but they couldn't and had to pull out. Then after that, we now have, you know, the tournaments in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, um, and then what we're to see that now in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania in 2027. And I think that there's that incentive to say, "Okay, fine. Individually, we might not have the capacity to build on this, but that we can work together." And that can only help making sure that there's even collaboration between neighbors, you know, and better activities to really bridge the gap and to show how, how much more of the continent we can really see through football.

I think ultimately, there will still be this emphasis on some of the more wealthier nations or the more... or the nations more established infrastructure, in looking at countries that have hosted international tournaments in the past, like South Africa, like Nigeria, like Egypt. And yes, I think that leaning into these particular countries might be more of a disadvantage because there is always that unintentional advantage that comes with, with hosting. Roughly a third of the countries that have hosted the AFCON have gone onto the final, and nearly all of them have actually won it. Côte d'Ivoire have been (laughs) the latest example.

So it's really a case where, as much as possible, when we move these tournaments around, when we have other countries that are hosting it and able to use the momentum to increase that level of investment within their domestic-sporting infrastructure, we can have more competitive countries in the aftermath as a legacy of the tournament. So I think that the efforts right now by CAF to have more, more joint-hosts and to move the tournaments around will only help to make more countries more experienced in hosting. Uh, and then hopefully that means that they are able to also be much more competitive.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: I presume when you host, you, you invest a lot. You don't want to embarrass yourself, so-

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Exactly.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: You invest as much (laughs) as you can, give it literally the best, 250% so you don't embarrass your country, you don't embarrass the region, and so on. It also played... The AFCON also played out during the Israel-Hamas conflict. We have countries with different sensibilities, populations that are politically aware. Did you see this come to a head during the game? Did you see an expression of either way of the spectrum of this conflict between Israel and Hamas?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Yes. So, one of the very good football journalists who I follow, Maher Mezahi, uh, who was at the African Cup of Nations in Côte d'Ivoire, actually touched on this, where quite a number of officials tried to remove Palestine flags, uh, that were taken into the stadium, especially by countries, uh, in northern part of the continent. And I think that that playing out the way it did, uh, was an unnecessary distraction, because football has always served to allow that level of exposure when it comes to looking at issues that people might not necessarily want to look at.

You rightly mentioned the players from DR Congo, you know, protesting during their match. We also have history in terms of people like Didier Drogba from Côte d'Ivoire that had played one of the World Cup qualifiers in a rival base and knelt down to actively try to appeal for an end to the civil war. And that has been cited as a very strong example or a very strong action that led to the eventual resolution. So I think there are many different points in terms of looking at how football and politics and culture and expression really intersect.

So, when you're looking at the Israel-Palestine conflict, you know, there are many supporters who wanted to voice their share. Um, we also saw that during the Qatar World Cup, where quite a number of the teams from, from the Middle East, uh, and then Morocco, they made it all the way to the semi-finals, many of their fans actively used the opportunities to show their support. So I think having that kind of unintentional censorship, even if the hope was to remove that distraction, really tried to remove some of the flair, because ultimately, it's always been about expression. It has been about showing support.

And ultimately, what we hope is that this leads to necessary conversations that actually pushes the needle in terms of saying, "Okay, fine. How can we resolve? How can we, you know, come to the same table?" 'Cause at the end of the day, there is that level of agreement to come to the football pitch, and then it's hopeful that If teams can play together, teams can actually have these kind of, you know, of interactions, then hopefully there can be better resolutions. So I think that's really one of the sad hallmarks of the tournament, where that level of attempted censorship really didn't do what the organizers may have wanted. It really just distracted from what had already been a really well-run tournament.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: There is no avoiding this. I think every cycle, there will always be an even that will take center stage, if not several events. Um, and rightfully so, people have liked to use these platforms to, to put center, front and center whatever issues are affecting them. I was in, uh, Bamako and watched the game Côte d'Ivoire and Mali. Uh, so you can imagine how tense that was-

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Yeah (laughs).

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... in the region (laughs). How... And you were over there. How was it? How did it play out? Because in the room, it was intense, I can tell you as much.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: So on social media, there was a lot of talk about this being the, you know, the quote unquote was haters tournament. So the fact that, that many countries were supporting the, the successes of countries that were knocking out their rivals. So there's a very interesting anecdote that was going around about how... And it was a Nigerian. I think it was… on Twitter or now formally known at Twitter, X, who was watching the match. And it was Egypt playing Ghana. So whenever Egypt scored, you know, he would celebrate, and he's a Nigerian. But then whenever Ghana scored, another gentlemen would celebrate. At the end of the day, they are like, "I'm a Nigerian. We don't want Ghana to win." The other person is like, "I'm Tunisian. We don't want Egypt to win." And then they hug each other (laughs) because they acknowledge that their rivalries have played out in such a way that the match ends, you know, in a two-two draw.

Um, but I think It was more of an interesting side thing that... It, it just really showed how much of a fraternal tournament this is, because at the end of the day, the level of, of interest in, in the matches, in terms of any potential rivalry, was actually really reduced. If we compare that to, to the amount of interest when USA played Iran at the Qatar World Cup, you know, there was a lot of focus on, "Okay, how would this come about? What if... What if Iran wins or the US wins?" We didn't have many of... We didn't have any of that at all during the AFCON. It was really more of a fraternal tournament, and I think it really speaks to that level of pan-Africa unity.

And ultimately, yes, there will be banter. And often Nigerians went to town on Ghana (laughs) on social media, and then also Nigeria got its own fair share back when unfortunately lost in the final. But I think, at the end of the day, it always speaks to that level of camaraderie that, "Look, this is our tournament. This is an African tournament, and we have really tried to build this." And I think it added a certain level of flavor to how much interest and how much, you know, buzz it was able to generate.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Viewership for this game was over two billion people. How do you read that?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: So, you rightly mention that there were many stars at the AFCON. I mean, Victor Osimhen was in top 10 of the Ballon d'Or rankings last year, and he was the highest-goal scorer for a Napoli team that won their first Italian title for nearly 30 years. And we also have stars such as Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool. We have Sadio Mané who is now in the Saudi Arabian league. Hakimi, who plays for PSG, and even quite a number of very prominent players, Haller, in Germany.

So I think it comes back to two things. One, we have a tournament that is now able to bring or attract very prominent stars. And almost everywhere you go, almost every team that was there, there was at least one player that many people could say, "Oh, I have seen this person play for this club, or I am so... I've followed this person play before," but even for fans who don't follow domestic football, which means that they would have played internationally. So I think that level of interest shows that African players are doing very well, and there's also an effort in making sure that African players are also feeling those close ties to their countries to come back and play for them in an AFCON in a period that has historically been fairly disruptive to the European calendar, because it's in January in the middle of the second half of the season.

But I think the second part, also have to give credit to the infrastructure behind the scenes. So looking at, for example, the deals that were made between CAF and the domestic organizers with other different broadcasting groups that were able to really showcase the, the tournaments around. Looking at social media, for example, the difference in the trending hashtags that we discussed and even just the difference in appeals. And there was that collaboration or there was that subtle patriotism or that favor that was not just limited to the continent but also internationally. So there were many different watching groups across the world, wherever there were pockets of, you know, of Africans in the diaspora who wanted to follow their teams. And I think that also helped increasing that buzz and that attention that really helped AFCON become much more viewed and much more seen and much more followed than it has been in the past.

CAF has reported that it was broadcasted to over 180 countries around the world during this particular tournament. And I think that it's these kinds of facts that really show that there is an interest in the tournaments. But then what that also means is that hopefully CAF, the domestic, foreign associations, and even just future hosts can really leverage on that when it comes to investment. You can say that "Look, these many people are looking at our tournament. If you invest, if you put money, and if you support, you can also get that level of exposure."

So, what we know now is that people are interested in African football. What we hope to see is that people want to leverage that interest to actually ensure more tangible, uh, more strong investments, uh, ensure that it even builds and even gets stronger and can even rival, you know, (laughs) the European or the South American or even the World Championships in the future. That is very big pipe dream, but the, you know, we would not have imagined these numbers before, so I think we can always try to push the bar ever so higher.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: …a very, um, impressive and memorable event. I was particularly very impressed by Cabo Verde. You mentioned about it early, small team, small island, powerful on the pitch. As we look forward into the, uh, next AFCON, a couple things came to mind to me when I was watching the game. One, it was just... And I think you referred to this. You know, I was looking at all these international broadcasters report the games, and they got all the names right. You know, I remember asking a friend, "What? They understand?" Friend said, "You know, all these players have been, well, playing in the international arena, so everybody knows them."

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Yeah.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: It's not like-

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: (Laughs)

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... the way it used to be in the old days. It would be difficult to pronouncing, uh... to pronounce a couple of these Nigerian, Congolese, Ghanaian names.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Yeah.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: But these are household names wherever they play, so they were known.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: I think that it's also an acknowledgement of the audience and how diverse and how global the audience is. You know, people want to be able to see, "Okay, this person is actually respecting the culture, or this person actually even knows their history." You rightly mentioned that I was actually following the Cape Verde, South Africa match. Uh, I think it was the quarterfinals that they ended up winning on penalties. And even down to the particular intonations of the South African names, the commenter just, like, they were saying it spot on. And I think that it's, it's just the acknowledgement and the appreciation for how diverse of a game it is.

Historically, we would have done the same thing for supporters or for... or for players who play for other prominent countries, you know, like Russia or around other parts of the world. So, I think it's also an acknowledgement of the audience, that people wanted to make sure that there was that level of interest and respect for the different players out there. But like you also mentioned, yes, many of these players are used to their names being chanted by many different fans across the world. You know, they play in the European leagues. They play around the world. So, I think there is that acknowledgement that, "Okay, fine. There are many strong players that are also coming back to play for AFCON, and we can follow them as a result of that."

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: The next AFCON better than this, stakes are higher. What's your crystal ball?

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: I think it will be better. I think the bar has been rightly set higher, and I think that Morocco will be able to live up to that. I'm also optimistic because Morocco is a country that has historically shown a concerted effort in investing in football. So, Morocco hosted the last Women's AFCON. It will host the next Women's AFCON. Uh, Morocco has also grown in terms of the exposure that things have gotten. Morocco recently reached (laughs) the semi-final, like we keep mentioning (laughs), uh, because that was the first time an African team had done so.

So, I think that there will be a level of investment that will support, uh, that... rather that will aim to show how far along they've come and how far they've grown in this particular, uh, endeavor. I also think that what will likely happen is that, like we already (laughs) mentioned earlier, no, no host country wants to bring everybody to the party and not end up having a very good time themselves, so they will also rightly look to increase that.

One very subtle point that I'm also curious about is that one thing the AFCON does is that it helps to bridge the perception between different parts of the continent. You know, we've seen quite negative comments about, "Oh, this is a sub-Saharan tournament," or, "We don't Northern Africans playing," or this and that, or even just looking at the different area between, like, you know, Arab and African and different players. And I think that one that AFCON does is it really showcases how diverse and how broad and how wide the continent is. And Morocco has another chance to really kick that forward by bringing the world to Morocco and by, you know, being very wonderful hosts that we expect them to be.

And I think that what we are hoping for is that the bar keeps getting higher. By the time we get to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania in, you know, in 2027, that there will also be similar interest in really pushing and increasing the level of hosting and the level of, you know... and even then, the quality, because ultimately the quality is stronger there, and we hope that it translates to the page. And then one day, who knows, we might be having an AFCON where one of the players, or one of the teams rather, is a world champion, and (laughs), you know, and they are playing on the continent for a domestic title. So, I think that it will better in Morocco.

If there is anything I have learned from this year is that I will be making no predictions on who will win because (laughs) we don't know which teams will become one of the upsets next and which teams will become one of the giants that falls out very early on. I am obviously hoping that it's not Nigeria (laughs), but it's one of those things that that would be really quite interesting to see. And I think that is something that we are all really looking forward to seeing how countries have taken on from this year, seen looking fine, their levels of investment in Africa push on. In some countries we see that if we also put in that effort, we can also become one of the more competitive countries in the business. And, and I think that that level of engagement and that level of, of interest will only make the tournament even better.

I mean, just a very last fact, none of the teams that have reached the quarterfinals this year reached which was in the same stage last tournament round. It was a completely new set of eight countries. So, it's just that level of knowing that if you sit on your old, and you just rest, you will get replaced. So, it's really just making sure that that momentum keeps growing and that we keep seeing some incredible football.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: On that optimistic note, Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, Research Analyst at the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria, we'd like to thank you for sharing your perspectives and insights with our audience today.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja: Thank you for having me.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Thank you for listening. We want to have more conversations about Africa. Tell your friends subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts. You can also read our analysis and reports at So long.