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It’s time for Afcon action, and the season of empty stadiums

Thursday June 27 2019

Ghana and Benin Afcon match

Ghana's midfielder Christian Atsu (right) is closed down by Benin's forward Jodel Dossou during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) football match between Ghana and Benin at the Ismailia Stadium on June 25, 2019. PHOTO | OZAN KOSE | AFP 

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The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Finals is on in Egypt, and it’s time to contend with that old African embarrassment — empty stadiums.

We shall get the numbers of those viewing it on TV but, if past trends are anything to go by, it will not get within sniffing distance of the eyeballs that the English Premier League, or the Uefa Champions League, gets.


I watched the last Afcon championship in 2017 more than I have this time, partly because, honestly, by expanding it to 24 teams, they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. If Uganda advances to the semis, of course I will go totally native.

I remember, though, that in 2017, some of my friends laughed at me because I tweeted a lot about it. They mocked me, saying things like I was the only one watching.

The Daily Nation’s sister paper in Uganda, Daily Monitor, said that this time part of the problem is fan IDs, first used by Fifa at last year’s World Cup in Russia. Aimed to control fans and enforce security — we live in terrorism-infested times — it’s the football equivalent of Huduma Namba. Getting it is such a hustle; even fans in Egypt who would have attended more games have given up.


But the IDs weren’t a requirement at the past Afcon tournaments with empty seats. The English Premier League has become a finely produced sports product that pulls on many emotional strings, including its cosmopolitan casts, and it is probably unfair to compare things like that to Afcon.

But some things can be done to increase attendance, and most of them have nothing to do with football. One thing the corrupt African football governing body, Caf, can do is borrow from other leagues and try to make every Afcon tournament something bigger than football. Things others have done, like making tournaments campaigns against racism in sport, give it legs and wings. I’m not sure how “Against Tribalism” would play out, but I think dedicating a tournament to climate change, ending human trafficking or child labour might go down well with fans.

Make ribbons and wristbands, put them out on Tuskys and Carrefour checkout counters, and we buy them with the change. It might just convince a few more people to be engaged with a tournament where muscular men with strange haircuts, and weird tattoos you can barely make out against their dark skins, are oozing excessive testosterone.


The second, and perhaps more effective one, is to make it easy to get to the games. European stadiums fill up because, in addition to the closer ties fans have with both club and national teams, and the fact that they are richer, the venues are easy to get to.

When the World Cup happened in South Africa in 2010, more Africans travelled to it because, well, it was the World Cup and not Afcon. But several fans who went there from East Africa did so by road, in groups, as part of a travel adventure, in which they drank the local booze and danced in the towns along the way and took photos and wrote blogs.

Egypt seems just too far away. But it isn’t, compared to South Africa. From the centre of Kenya, it is 3,078km. South Africa is 3,732km away, yet it looked “near”, and piling up in a car to go there in 2010 was no big deal.

One reason is that, especially if you set out from Central or West Africa for Egypt by road, you would endure more inhospitable terrain, and are likely to be abducted or killed by some militia.

However, if there was a railway from Cape Town to Alexandria, or the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) was up and running and had looped to Sudan and on to Egypt, as the Afro-optimists dream, it would be along a secured corridor, cheaper and a breeze.


The anti-African and predatory border regimes would also have to come down. Some countries have dismantled visa requirements for other Africans, but not enough of them. The result, I suspect, is that if you set out from Namibia by road for Cairo over a month ago, depending on how ‘touristy’ you look, you’d arrive in Egypt in time for the next Afcon — in Cameroon in 2021. You’d have paid 100 bribes, and bankrupted yourself — or family.

A functioning “borderless” continent and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) would get rid of most of that, and sharply reduce the logistic cost of getting around. A clever head told me the other day that, if AfCFTA was roaring, and the African Union introduced an e-currency to go with it, “Africa would be unrecognisable”.

We’d have travelled to Cairo in a blink, hang around there for a fraction of the cost, and given President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the middle finger while at it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer site @cobbo3