MUCH HAS happened within the Confederation of African Football (CAF) since the shock ouster of former CAF president Issa Hayatou as president of the organisation a little over 12 months ago.
Mr Hayatou had clung onto power for 29 years, taking on the guise of a dictatorial figure, and it was clear when he was replaced by Ahmad Ahmad in March last year that change was needed.
African football had, to a large extent, stagnated such that there was no innovation, and any new thinking was stifled by the old guard. CAF was in many ways run in 2017 just as it had been in 1987.
Sure, there were lucrative broadcast rights and a major sponsor, but there could be a big debate as to whether football on the continent was actually moving forward.
Should Africa bow down to Europe? No, but certain realities must be recognised. Since then the change has been rapid, with the expansion of the African Nations Cup to 24 teams – in line with global trends at FIFA to grow the World Cup field – providing more opportunities for nations to be sat at the main table.
There will be naysayers who suggest it will dilute the field, and to some extent it will, but will that make it less watchable, or will adding an extra game or two per match day help create more hype across the continent?
Also, moving the tournament to the European summer is smart, finally breaking the cycle of club versus country battles that were a hindrance to both players and national teams, and at times ensured the best players were not represented at the competition.
Should Africa bow down to Europe? No, but certain realities must be recognised, that when the tournament was played in January and February, the clubs held all the power and, with an increasing number of African players in Europe, it was a situation that was becoming untenable.
Certainly the expansion of the Champions League and Confederation Cup group stages last year, another new innovation, has not hurt those products and instead opened up the competition to wider audiences.
CAF’s announcement on Tuesday that they would standardise fixtures is another major step in the right direction. Teams like Mbabane Swallows and Township Rollers who, with the greatest respect, had very little chance to reach the pool stages before, have now done so and that can only grow interest in those countries and help, in some way, to develop both the local game and the national teams.
It was a smart move with very little downside and plenty of positives, but there was still an issue with the scheduling of matches, which was higgledy-piggledy enough to be distracting, poor for television and poor for fans trying to plan their trips to the stadia.
But CAF’s announcement on Tuesday that they would standardise fixtures is another major step in the right direction, providing surety to teams, broadcasters and fans.
For the first time, they have also announced the full fixtures for the group stages well in advance of the last game in the Champions League, and will do likewise when the draw for the Confederation Cup pool stages is made on Friday.
It gives the competition a whole new professional look and allows for much better planning all round, even if it does mean that some games will only kick-off at 9pm local time, including two of Mamelodi Sundowns’ matches.
It is a smart move by CAF, giving each competition its own space on the calendar and bringing surety around travel and logistics. This is not unusual in North Africa of course, especially during Ramadan, but will take some getting used to for local fans and is not ideal, likely putting off some fans from going to the stadium.
Weekend Champions League games will now only be played on a Friday and Saturday, or a Tuesday if there is a round of midweek matches
Confederation Cup games can only be staged on a Sunday or a Wednesday, crucially meaning there will never be overlap between the competitions.
For Friday Champions League games, matches will start at either 6pm or 9pm South Africa time, while on Saturdays and Tuesdays it will be 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. The same goes for Confederation Cup matches on Sundays and Wednesdays.
It is a smart move by CAF, giving each competition its own space on the calendar and bringing surety around travel and logistics.
It is long overdue, following on from how UEFA handle their two continental competitions, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays reserved for their version of the Champions League, and Thursdays for the Europa League.
The thinking at CAF is now progressive, recognising that football is a business that must be run professionally. The governing body has blotted their copybook slightly after reportedly agreeing to allow Sundowns to switch their clash away at Guinea side Horoya from May 15 to a week later to accommodate their high-profile friendly against Barcelona, for which they have yet to provide a good explanation.
But overall it is another sign that the thinking at CAF is now progressive, recognising that football is a business and for a business to flourish it must be run professionally and take all the advantages open to it.
We are starting to see that at CAF now, which still has its challenges, make no mistake, but so would any organisation that represents 56 countries across a continent the size of Africa, with many differing cultural perspectives and many agendas at play.
But let’s applaud the work they have done in the past 12 months to try to drag the continent’s football into the 21st century, where seemingly small adjustments can make a big difference.