The continent's premier football tournament remains inextricably linked with broader developments

The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN), which Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea, prompted a flurry of building in the two countries. Stadiums were expanded, motorways cantilevered and hotels erected. In many ways, the economic impact and symbolism of the tournament were more significant than the competition itself. The notion of a football tournament serving as an indicator of economic issues is not as odd as it might sound. The CAN has in many ways mirrored some of the broader trends in Africa in recent years, both on and off the pitch.

Footing the Bill

Football inspires passionate fervour in every African country, but sometimes events outside the stadium enhance the drama. Bidding for the 2012 tournament was a case in point. The bids, solicited in 2006 by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), came from five of Africa’s major petroleum producers, all of whom were benefitting from rising oil prices – which means they could afford the costs associated with staging the competition. It was eventually awarded to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the combined bid besting proposals by Angola (which eventually hosted the 2010 tournament), Nigeria and Libya.

Conflict

Libya’s attempts to host the CAN followed the same unfortunate trajectory as the country’s initially promising Arab Spring revolution. Libya failed to win the right to host the 2012 tournament, but submitted the winning bid for 2013, only to see that competition moved to South Africa by the CAF following the outbreak of intense fighting in the wake of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster. As a consolation, the CAF awarded Libya the 2017 tournament, only to have to relocate that competition to Gabon as well, as a result of the continued instability. The fighting may have ended the country’s hopes of hosting a tournament but it did not stop the national team – some of whom had fought in the conflict – from putting in a commendable performance at the 2012 CAN, drawing 2-2 with the eventual champions Zambia and defeating perennial favourites Senegal, currently ranked fifth in Africa, 2-1.

Libya was far from the only team at the 2012 tournament to represent a country troubled by violence at home. Tunisia’s 2012 team also featured members who had fought in the unrest following former President Zine El Ben Ali’s departure, and Mali’s midfielder Seydou Keita broke down in tears following their quarter final victory over Gabon while begging for an end to the insurgency in his home country.

The back-and-forth over Libya’s capacity to host the tournament is not the only occasion where the CAN has reflected broader continental issues. The 2015 CAN, for example, also fell victim to off-field concerns. Bidding to host the competition began in 2010, with proposals submitted by Morocco, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa. Morocco was eventually selected as host, with South Africa awarded the 2017 competition.

Ebola

However, as a result of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Morocco requested a postponement of the tournament in October 2014, less than four months before the opening match, citing public health concerns. Following two weeks of discussions both among the CAF executive committee and the Moroccan government, the CAF opted to proceed with the originally scheduled time frame and as a result, transferred the tournament to Equatorial Guinea.

International competitions in Africa create a lot of excitement, but as the CAN has proved, the activity off the pitch can be equally dramatic. With Gabon having now been awarded the 2017 tournament – hosting it alone this time – it will be interesting to see what sort of drama will be served up.

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