African Cup of Nations 2017, Africa’s flagship football tournament starts later today in Gabon. On the eve of the tournament, I can confidently say African football seems bigger and more dominant than ever. It’s the Africa’s richest, most watched and most played sport. The African Cup of Nations is the only sporting event able to come close to the World Cup and Olympics in terms of African television audience. But football’s dominance isn’t inevitable. Other sports inspire as much passion and fervour and dominate in certain countries. So will any other sport ever take over from football in Africa? My view is that, it won’t happen in near future. Football certainly seems deeply ingrained in Africans psyche. It has roots in so many parts of the continent. Other sports may be strongly supported in a country, such as cricket in South Africa and rugby in Zimbabwe, or athletics in Kenya. Football is played across all parts of the continent.Yes, football might be considered more of a participation sport in some African countries, but the football is growing fast and currently has overall higher average attendances than its rival sports in the continent. Cricket is still one of the main sport in South Africa, but even there interest in football is on the rise among people, although it is mainly centred on local clubs like Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Ajax Cape Town as well as international clubs watched via satellite television in bars, being watched at live matches and on television respectively.So why will football dominate Africa for the foreseeable future? My view is that it may partly be because it has a format and rules which are relatively easy to understand. Football might even be compared to those types of school rules which are apparently easier to standardise like reporting to school on time. Football matches last 90 minutes and far more reasonable than cricket’s test matches encounters that can go one for up to five days. A shorter game fits well with the busy lives of sports consumers and bodes well for football’s continued African expansion.
In terms of format, other challengers for most popular global sport have their issues. Cricket, baseball and rugby are complicated, as is Australian Football which I grew up watching. No doubt American football does well at building an audience through worldwide TV coverage, the Superbowl, I must admit I haven’t missed it for past two decades, is the most watched single sporting event. But the sport’s complexity is likely to hold it back and it has ground to make up as a mass global participation sport. For example in Africa, there’s little interest in American Football compared to European football league’s like the wildly popular English Premier League, Italian League, Bundesliga, Ligue one and La Liga. The most popular American sport in Africa is basketball which has been growing and stands a chance of big Tv audience if nurtured well. The main attraction with basketball is that it work well in terms of format, the games aren’t too long, the rules are relatively simple and you don’t need expensive equipment to play just like football. The sport is already massive in some countries, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Angola and Kenya but it still seems to be struggling to break into national sport status in countries with a footballing tradition like South Africa, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria.In Kenya and Ethiopia, athletics could be a strong contender. It represents sport at its most simple, and can easily be replicated throughout Africa. Different African nations seem to dominate different types of events, and TV coverage around the African Cup of Nations inspires future generations across the different countries. No wonder participation rates are high and media coverage unparalleled. This can also be a problem though.
In African Cup of Nations football, it isn’t always clear where sport begins and individual players ends. Not having such a strong league and competition structure like Europe and South America between tournaments means that, while no doubt a massively supported sport, African Cup of Nations events are not as regularly followed week in, week out, not televised as frequently and therefore do not generate the same fervour and tribal rivalry as football in Europe and South America. African Cup of Nations encounters engage Africans emotions like few other things can. Football has been seen to transcend political, religious and other divides that exist in the continent of 1 billion people. It has the power to unite. The African popularity of football has created national and international heroes and global brands. Like other types of brands, success is down to winning the battle for hearts and minds and football’s greatest strength is perhaps that of winning the hearts of its African fan base. When a national side does well in African Cup of Nations, there is a buoyant mood, a feel good factor which draws in even occasional and less interested fans. This would happen with any success but that it happens in so many African countries simultaneously is why African Cup of Nations tournaments is hard to rival in Africa. And when these African Cup of Nations events end, then football’s club seasons gets back the attention. This relentlessness, along with its commercial success, will make African Cup of Nations a hard act to follow. The teams taking place in the tournament that kicks off later today are in four groups.Group A matches to be played in Libreville has hosts Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea Bissau while group B matches in Franceville has Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Zimbabwe. In group C matches in Oyem, Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Morocco and Togo will battle it out while in group D matches in Port Gentil there’s Ghana, Mali, Egypt and Uganda. May the best team win come February 5, 2017.