The award ceremony is set to hold, on July 21, for the first time since 2019, when Sadio Mane claimed the African Footballer of the Year (AFOTY) gong for the first time after consecutive runner-up finishes behind (now former) clubmate Mohamed Salah in 2017 and 2018. Three years have passed since, but little has changed: realistically, the podium in Rabat in three weeks’ time will feature those two, probably in spots #1 and #2 respectively.
While there is little controversy about who the front runners are, CAF’s decision to release a 30-man list of nominees for the AFOTY raised more than a few eyebrows. Peruse the selection, and it is easy to understand why: it reads, basically, like an honours list for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON, held earlier this year, in January and February), with some token inclusions from CAF’s interclub competitions thrown in, and Riyad Mahrez. That’s the lot.
This is not necessarily a problem, of course. Many have argued for a long time that CAF ought to give greater credibility to its own competitions held on the continent; this view reached a crescendo following the decision to pass over Mohamed Aboutrika for the Africa Player of the Year gong.
That decision has come to be viewed as a travesty, a miscarriage of justice, to the point where it seems like many are willfully dismissing just how good a year Emmanuel Adebayor, who won the award, had.
The crux of this argument, really, is this: no one knows quite what the APOTY award is supposed to reward.
According to CAF, by way of explanation as to how they arrived at their various shortlists: “A stakeholder panel made up of Technical Experts, CAF Legends and Journalists decided on the list for the various categories taking into the consideration the performance of the nominee from September 2021 till June 2022…”
Evaluating the nominees in light of this reveals some baffling choices, however. For instance, if the period for consideration was truly September 2021 to June 2022, then how and why have the likes of Youssouf M’changama, Ahmed Blati Toure, Mohameds Abdelmonem and Elneny, and Naby Keita been nominated?
This is not to single these players out, even; they all performed admirably at AFCON, and are solid footballers in their own right, but well over half the list could be weeded out by the very criterion that CAF suggests led to their inclusion. So what gives?
While performances at CAF’s flagship event should count for something, they cannot be all that matters. That is what the Player of the Tournament, Golden Boot, official Team of the Tournament, and sundry other AFCON awards are for. If the idea is to do what the AFOTY award says on the tin, then surely the choices and considerations should not be limited to a handful of matches played over a one-month period. It is, after all, a Player of the Year award, is it not? The calendar says there are 12 months in that; don’t shoot the messenger.
It would be churlish to suggest he would have a realistic chance of winning but, as a case in point, are there really 30 footballers out of Africa at the moment who have been better over the last 12 months than Victor Osimhen? Nampalys Mendy, who started 12 matches for Leicester City, was a better player this past season? Saliou Ciss, who did not start every match for relegated Nancy in the French second division? History is written by the victors, and Senegal won the AFCON, but let’s be serious here.
Another pitfall of using international competitions as the premier yardstick is that they do not hold every year. So, in the odd year when there is no AFCON to consider, then consistent club performance becomes relevant? That means that, from one year to the next, the rules change, and that is a slap in the face of fairness.
Should international performances be taken into account? Yes. Should they even be given a greater weighting? Probably. (We do not want a Joel Matip situation, wherein a player who has, for all intents and purposes, cut ties with his national team gets considered for the award. It should be a part of the requirement for the player to have demonstrated a commitment to represent his country during the year under review.) However, should they inherently matter more than the work of an entire season? Absolutely not. Math says so, basic commonsense agrees.
Or else, we wind up with this farce, where a player who totalled fewer than 300 minutes of football for Aston Villa is considered one of Africa’s best 30 footballers. Yes, Bertrand Traore. The mind fairly boggles.