Feature: Cup Of Nations qualification expansion and consequences on European football
By: Naveen Maliakkal
The expansion of Africa Cup Of Nations’ qualification process may lead to an increased unavailability of some African players for their clubs.
As is the case every other season, the Africa Cup of Nations will affect the availability of players for their club sides.
While past Africa Cups of Nations made players unavailable to their clubs from the middle of January into February, depending on how far a particular nation progresses, the expansion of the tournament’s qualification process may lead to an increased unavailability of some African players for their clubs.
Qualification for ACN 2013
For the last Africa Cup of Nations, qualification had three phases. Qualification started with a preliminary round with two sets of two-legged ties between the four lowest-ranked teams in Africa. The four teams played the first leg in the first week of January and the second leg in the third week of January, in 2012.
The two winners and the 26 teams that did not qualify for the previous Africa Cup of Nations enter the first round. This round consists of 14 two-legged ties, with the first leg played in February and the second leg played in June of 2012.
The 14 winners joined the 16 teams that qualified for the previous Africa Cup of Nations in the second round. Like the previous rounds, this round consists of two legged ties, with the 15 winners joining the host nation to make of the 16 teams that will compete in the tournament. The first leg was played on September 7th, 8th, or 9th, during the period FIFA set aside for national team matches. The second leg was played on October 12th, 13th, or 14th, during another international break.
For some context, while African players of teams in the second round play one game during each of these breaks, many international players are playing a game, in some rare cases two, for their country as well. In 2012, these periods saw South American and European nations compete in World Cup 2014 qualifying matches.
Qualification for ACN 2015
With 51 nations entering the qualifying process, five more than for ACN 2013, and possibly a desire to have more matches by stadium owners, those who collect revenue from ticket sales, etc., the Confederation of African Football changed the qualification process for ACN 2015.
The preliminary round, played in April 2014, is the same as before, with the two winners joining the teams 26 lowest ranked teams, outside of the bottom four. The first round, played on May 17th/18th and May 30th-June 1st, and the second round, played on July 19th/20th and August 2nd/3rd, consist of two-legged ties to get from 28 teams to seven winners. These seven winners join the 21 highest ranked African teams in the new third round of qualifying, a group stage.
The group stage is a double round-robin with four teams in each of the seven groups. Instead of playing a match in a weak, the top 21 African nations plus the seven who advanced from the second round, play two matches in a week three times. The top two teams in each group and the highest ranked third place team qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, along with host nation Morocco.
So in qualification, Ivory Coast will play Sierra Leone on September 6th in the Ivory Coast and will then play in Cameroon on September 10th. Back in 2012, Ivory Coast would have played just the first leg of the qualifying tie. Ivory Coast’s second set of matches will see them go away and then come home to play the Democratic Republic of the Congo on October 10th/11th and October 15th. Back in 2012, Ivory Coast would have played the second leg of a tie that they may have killed off in the first leg. The final set of group stage matches sees Ivory Coast play Sierra Leone on November 14th/15th, at some neutral venue to be determined, and then play Cameroon in a home match on November 19th.
These set of matches do overlap with FIFA international breaks. European nations will play qualifiers for Euro 2016 (which has become a rather easy tournament to qualify for), while South American nations will play friendlies.
For the nations that qualify, players will likely leave ten days before the start of the tournament to train with their national side. So if Ivory Coast makes it to the final, Manchester City may not have Yaya Toure available to them, from January 7th (the tournament starts on January 17th this year) to some day after February 8th, depending on how long he takes to return after final (Yaya Toure did leave for the 2013 ACN before an FA Cup match on January 5th, though the ACN began on January 19th).
The key to the potential impact on ACN qualification expansion comes from the marginal increases in the games burden and time burden that it places on some of the best African players. All of these work to reduce the value of certain African players to European club sides. Particularly, it lowers the value of player who are key players for African sides that stand a good chance of advancing deep into the tournament.
Getting back to Yaya Toure, Manchester City go away to Arsenal, for a lunchtime kick-off, on September 13th. In previous qualification campaigns would see Toure play a match, travel back to England, and have time to recover and prepare for the match. Now Toure plays two matches, travels from Cameroon to Ivory Coast, and then travels from Ivory Coast back to England, in the seven days before City’s match against Arsenal. The pattern plays out before City host Tottenham on October 18th and when City host Swansea on November 22nd, though a nation like Ivory Coast may have sealed up qualification before the final set of matches.
Not only could Toure be fatigued or unavailable for big matches against Arsenal and Tottenham, who under Pochettino should be a much better side, but the increased number of matches also increases the chances for him to pick up an injury during one of these international breaks.
Finally, unlike the Copa America or the Euros, the African Cup of Nations occurs every two years, not every four.
Now a player of the caliber of Yaya Toure, combined with a lack of options City have to replace him, make it unlikely that the expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations qualification process pushes the marginal benefit-marginal cost analysis such that the marginal cost>marginal benefit. While the cost of having Yaya Toure does increase, City are probably still better off keeping a player of his quality for now, though it may make the decision to not offer him a new contract easier.
Where we may see more of an impact in situations where a club is in a position where the margins of success are thin for significant marginal gains/losses (could be that the club anticipates that they will be in a tight race for the title, for Champions League places, or to avoid relegation), there is an appreciable number of quality alternatives (high opportunity cost of signing an African player with CAN obligations), and a club is not wealthy enough to stock two quality options at the position of the African player (do not have the resources to mitigate the risk/lost production without making too large of a sacrifice elsewhere).
For example, the expansion of the ACN may have played a role, not necessarily the role, in Arsenal not signing Serge Aurier. Going forward, Arsenal probably view themselves as either potential title contenders or contenders for top 4, going into each season. While Aurier is a talent, he still needs to develop before he could become a no-doubt start for Arsenal. Arsenal also have Calum Chambers and a promising prospect in Hector Bellerin who can take hold of that position as Mathieu Debuchy ages. Therefore, bringing in Aurier would take playing time and development resources away right-backs, particularly from Hector Bellerin. This development issue also extends to the rest of the back four, if one believes that a back four is significantly aided by continuity in its composition. Finally, Arsenal do not have enough resources to pay two quality right-backs enough to keep both happy and have it be an efficient allocation of resources. Those extra resources allocated to the right-back position mean those resources are not going to another position, where allocating those extra resources there could lead to more value for the club.
Like anything, the actors in these scenarios are flexible. We could see no change in the number of quality African players in European football. They could wind up at clubs with greater margins for error or at clubs with deep pockets who can invest significant resources in two right-backs, like PSG. This group of African players may lower their wage demands, helping to offset the increased cost of their international duty, to give the club they want to sign the perception that the marginal benefit>marginal cost, with respect to signing the player. Clubs could attempt to negotiate with national sides to not play their players too much, with a poor chance of success. Finally, African players, at the request of their club or due to their own desire to maximize what they get out of their club career, could end their international careers earlier or attempt to play less for their international sides. Maybe nothing happens as the economic agents, while they experience increased costs, have little sensitivity to that increase in cost (they have inelastic demand for some reason).
There are many possible outcomes of the expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations. As with any behavior, one can make predictions by looking at the incentives. However, stronger and more specific predictions require stronger and a larger number assumptions about preferences. In the end, it is best to wait and see what actually happens, compare reality to the hypothesized outcomes, and see if one can learn something from the successes and failures.
For those wondering about City’s potential schedule from January 3rd to February 11th:
League Fixtures: away to Everton, home to Arsenal, away to Chelsea, home to Hull City, away to Stoke City
FA Cup: Third Round Proper, Fourth Round Proper, (Fifth Round Proper is February 14th)
League Cup: both Semi-Final legs
Champions League: None as the first match of the Round of 16 is February 17th/18th, if they are drawn into the first week of Round 16 fixtures.