Poor Pitch Quality Overshadows African Cup of Nations

The 2017 African Cup of Nations came to a close on February 5, 2017 with Cameroon narrowly defeating Egypt to take home the prestigious trophy. Gabon, the tournament’s host country, delivered a safe and smoothly run tournament, despite earlier concerns of political unrest. However, the issues of poor field quality persisted during the tournament and became a source of several complaints about increasing risk of injury and ruining quality of play. Throughout the tournament, multiple players and coaches emphasized the need for more investment into pitch quality in order to give all teams equal opportunity. The warning signs of poor pitch quality came during Egypt’s first match against Mali, when first-choice goalkeeper Ahmad El-Shenawy tore his hamstring while doing a goal-kick. This immediately caused a crisis for the Egyptians, whose backup goalie was also injured during training because of poor pitch quality. The Pharaohs had to call up 44-year old Essam Al-Hadary, who made history as the oldest player to partake in a major international tournament and went on to win the best goalkeeper award. Nevertheless, the mismanagement of funding that prevented proper pitch maintenance cost Egypt two crucial players.

Ghanaian coach, Avram Grant was quick to criticize the Confederation for African Football (CAF) for not allocating the proper funds into pitch preparation. He called out the organizing body, saying "Five injuries so far have been down to the pitch.” Grant stressed the importance of proper field maintenance, saying "The main actors are the players and we need to give them the stage to perform well.”

The most criticized of the stadiums was the Stade d'Angondjé in Libreville, Gabon’s capital. In the buildup to an upcoming match, Tunisian defender Youssef said that the fields were in such bad condition that the team would alter their style of play just to match the field conditions. Nevertheless, the incident did not unfazed him and he said “it's usual for us to play in Africa on bad pitches so we have to win and not care about the pitch." This statement alone alludes to the delicate state of African football, which has been subject to avid corruption for decades.

The CAF was quick to speak out against the improper pitch conditions, saying that similar issues would be resolved in the future. CAF Secretary General Hicham El Amrani underplayed the situation. “Of course we would have been happier if certain things had been better managed - and I'm not going to go back on the everlasting issue of the pitch in Port Gentil,” he said. It is unclear whether the CAF will take action on the issue, but its statements suggest that similar issues will be prevented in the future. El Armani commented that preparations are already underway to ensure safe pitch quality in the 2019 edition of the tournament in Cameroon.

Despite these long-term promises, CAF did not accept responsibility for the injuries that occurred in tournament. CAF representative Junior Binyam denied that the poor status of the pitch was responsible for any injuries, saying "It has not been scientifically proved that injuries are related to the pitch." This denial of responsibility shows that the organization has room for improvement in terms of getting serious about legitimate issues that have had adverse effects on the international game.