Africa’s female players are excelling: no Wafcon in 2024 would be a travesty

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Racheal Kundananji;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Racheal Kundananji</a> carries Barbra Banda: the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Zambia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Zambia</a> forwards are two of the world’s best players.</span><span>Photograph: Juan Mendez/AP</span>

After Morocco staged what was arguably the best-organised Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) in 2022, this year’s edition, set to be played in the same country, was expected to be a significant step in raising the profile of the women’s game in the continent. If, that is, it goes ahead.

With the credible performances of South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco at last year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand – all three teams reaching the last 16 – this year’s tournament is expected to be the most keenly contested since its inception in 1998.

Defending champions South Africa, Nigeria (the record nine-time winners), Morocco, Zambia, Ghana, Tunisia, Mali, Algeria, Senegal, DR Congo, Botswana and Tanzania are the 12 qualified teams.

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“With the biggest players in the women’s football transfer market coming from Africa [Racheal Kundananji and Barbra Banda from Zambia, and Asisat Oshoala from Nigeria], this is the must-watch Wafcon,” says Kenyan football writer Julia Wanjeri. “Women’s football is drawing monumental audiences across the globe, including Africa. This is the Wafcon to maximise interest.”

However, despite all the heightened expectations, this year’s edition is in serious danger of being cancelled for the second time in four years – the first being in 2020, as a result of the Covid pandemic – because the competition has no fixed date in this year’s international match calendar.

A football association president of one of the 12 participating nations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian that the speculation coming from the hosts – recently given the right to host the U-17 Women’s World Cup for five successive years, from 2025-29 – and the Confederation of African Football (Caf) is that it will be shelved.

“When the Wafcon has no date in the match calendar, I do not see how a tournament is possible,” the FA president said. “The international match calendar is planned way in advance. You cannot fix a tournament into the year just like that. Our players feature for clubs across the world. They won’t agree to release players for a tournament that has not been planned for. It is unacceptable that Caf did not deal with this issue for nearly two years.”

Patrice Motsepe, Caf’s president, was unable to tell this reporter, on the eve of the kick-off of this year’s men’s Africa Cup of Nations, staged in Ivory Coast, when the the women’s tournament will take place. Nor was the South African able to explain why its scheduling has been unresolved for two years since the tournament was awarded to Morocco in August 2022.

Meanwhile, Caf said in a statement to the Guardian, it is trying to find a “winnable solution” to the problem.

“The Women’s Afcon was scheduled for June – but we have [the 2024 Paris] Olympics,” said spokesperson Luxolo September. “Secondly, the January 2024 window for women’s competitions wasn’t possible for Caf, for obvious reasons. Caf is currently engaging all involved stakeholders to find a winnable solution for this.”

Caf’s explanation , however, cuts no ice with many in the women’s football community, including Wanjeri. “That we are knee-deep into a Wafcon year with no dates is preposterous. It would be such a wasted opportunity if the continent, with some of the world’s best players, does not press play when the world is all eyes and ears.”

A head coach of one of the qualified teams is considering her future and looking for another job with cancellation looming. “If we don’t have a Wafcon to play this year, we may not have any competitive games for up to 12 months. I do not know how, as a coach, I can stay with my present team in such conditions. I don’t want to sit on my hands doing nothing. I need to be active,” she said.

Isha Johansen, the Fifa council member from Sierra Leone who also sits on the Caf executive committee, says the continent’s federation is doing its best to find a solution. “Of what benefit would it be to Caf for our women’s Nations Cup not to be held, especially after such a successful men’s tournament?” she says.

Sources within Caf disagree with Johansen and accuse the continental body’s administrative arm, headed by Véron Mosengo-Omba, its general secretary, of not taking Wafcon seriously. “Twelve national teams are waiting for a decision to be made, so they can make a preparation plan, arrange friendly matches and get sponsors or partners. This would never happen for the Afcon. We have only one national team competition for women and it is treated like this,” one said.

Clearly, these are troubled times for the women’s game in Africa, with uncertainty shrouding its leading competition.

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