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CAF ‘think tank’ to mull Nations Cup changes

Cameroon’s players celebrate with the winner’s trophy after defeating Egypt 2-1 to win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, at the Stade de l’Amitie Sino-Gabonaise in Libreville, on February 5

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jul 17- New-look Africa Cup of Nations and CAF Champions League competitions could emerge this week from discussions in Morocco that will include FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

A two-day CAF symposium begins Tuesday in Rabat and officials, coaches and former stars have been tasked with plotting the future of the popular sport in the continent.

On Friday, a CAF executive committee meeting will precede an extraordinary general assembly involving the 55 member associations, where changes could be adopted.

Former stars invited include Joseph-Antoine Bell of Cameroon, Hossam Hassan of Egypt, Rabah Madjer of Algeria, Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha of Nigeria and Badou Zaki of Morocco.

Leading national coaches Florent Ibenge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Herve Renard of Morocco and Claude le Roy of Togo are also expected to attend.

When Malagasy Ahmad Ahmad scored a shock CAF presidential triumph over long-serving Cameroonian Issa Hayatou last March, he vowed to thoroughly review African football.

The Morocco gathering is the fulfilment of that promise with the timing, frequency and number of qualifiers in the Cup of Nations likely to be among the hottest topics.

Hosting the biennial tournament in January and February has long been a source of frustration for European clubs, especially in England and France, where many Africans play.

Hayatou consistently rejected suggestions of a move to June, saying the weather then was too hot in northern Africa, too wet in the west and centre and too cold in the south.

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But his view was as much about not bowing to pressure from Europe as climatic conditions because African national teams and clubs play regularly during June without adverse effects.

Ahmad appears more of a “team player” than his my-way-or-the-highway predecessor, and what happened to eventual champions Cameroon before the 2017 Nations Cup has swayed his mind toward change.

Liverpool defender Joel Matip was among six “Indomitable Lions” who refused to be considered, saying their club careers were more important than national duty.

If European clubs had their way, the Cup of Nations would be held in mid-year only every four years. They may well get their wish on timing, but not on frequency.

The Cup of Nations is much more than a football tournament with new stadia, roads and other infrastructure among the benefits to the host nation, so the two-year cycle is set to stay.

What is less certain is how many teams will compete in future editions with some officials favouring an increase from 16 teams to 24, bringing it in line with the Euro Championship.

The advantage would be more teams exposed to top-level competition and the disadvantage a dilution of the qualifying competition with virtually one in every two teams qualifying.

Hosting could also become more restrictive as six stadiums would be needed instead of four, drastically reducing the number of countries who could stage the tournament.

Were the next finals in 2019 to be a 24-team affair, an already-behind-schedule Cameroon could be forced to pull out, with Algeria and Morocco reportedly interested in taking over.

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Some officials believe the best clubs, mostly from the north, should automatically qualify for the 16-team Champions League group stage.

Currently, they get preliminary round byes, then play a home-and-away tie, sometimes with unexpected consequences.

Five-time champions TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo were stunned in the round of 32 this year, losing on away goals to CAPS United of Zimbabwe.

It meant demotion to the secondary CAF Confederation Cup for the “Ravens”, reducing their first-prize earning potential from $2.5 million (2.2 million euros) to $1.25 million.

Ahmad favours zonal qualifying for the three age-limit Cup of Nations — U17, U20, U23 — to curb travel time and costs.

This format is used for the African Nations Championship (CHAN), a national team competition exclusively for footballers who play in their country of birth.

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