In just over two months’ time the greatest footballers from across Africa are due to take part in the 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. It is a tournament that in recent years has become one of the most fascinating in the football calendar.
There is only one problem: no one knows where the tournament will be held. Morocco was due to host but fears over the spread of the Ebola crisis prompted the North African nation to pull out. Those fears were, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. Few fans from any of the countries battling Ebola – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – were likely to come. Of the three only Guinea has a realistic chance of qualifying. Even those who might have made the journey would not have been a health risk: there is no medical reason to bar everyone from a country that has an Ebola outbreak.
But Morocco has made its decision so a new host needs to be found. Sadly, Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF), the Cairo-based body that supposedly runs African football, has displayed its usual combination of secrecy, bureaucracy and incompetence in dealing with the mess. Despite weeks of talks they are no closer to finding a replacement.
Who could step in at the last minute? South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010 but has already ruled itself out, as have previous Cup of Nations hosts Ghana and Egypt. Angola has the money and the stadiums but their last attempt in 2010 is not remembered with love. Nigeria has the stadiums but also has the small matter of a presidential election a week after the tournament is due to end. Tunisia? Algeria? Neither appears keen.
There is one other option: a nation that has the stadiums, has the capacity to organise a tournament at short notice and – perhaps most importantly – already has hundreds of thousands of fans from across Africa living there already. That country is England.
There are many reasons why this will never happen, of course. For a start, it would not reflect well on Africa if not one of the 54 nations on the continent was able to host its own tournament. It could feed a dangerous and false narrative of a continent that needs to be saved by the West. But framed in the right way, England’s offer would be an opportunity for European football to pay back a small part of the debt it owes to Africa.
European football has benefited enormously from Africa, particularly in the past two decades. But while the biggest stars are bought and sold for eight-figure sums, little of this money ever finds its way back to African football. All the best players moved to Europe at a young age for negligible transfer fees. The big money has simply gone from one European club to another. The clubs and academies responsible for developing the talents of Samuel Eto’o, John Obi Mikel and Yaya Touré have received hardly anything.
European football’s popularity has also had a terrible effect on the local game in Africa. From Kenya to Nigeria fans pack out bars at the weekend to watch the latest from the English Premier League rather than going to see their local clubs.
Hosting Africa’s greatest players at its most important tournament would not make up for the way the European game has taken advantage of the continent over the past 20 years but it would be a good way of beginning to acknowledge that debt.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.