CAF had no other choice but to postpone the Africa Cup of Nations

Africa Cup of Nations planning is rarely straightforward, but throw in the global coronavirus pandemic and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was forced to react, announcing a series of sweeping changes to the next two and a half years of the sporting calendar.

On Tuesday, CAF's Executive Committee decided on a series of changes to coming tournaments as Africa looks to plan for a post-COVID-19 future, with the key item on the agenda being the postponement of the 2021 AFCON to early 2022.

Not since 2012 has the tournament gone ahead without alteration to dates or hosts, testament to some of the harsh realities faced by African nations as well as the shifting politics of the continent's governing body.

The Libyan Civil War denied the North African nation the chance to host in 2013; the country also lost the 2017 tournament due to the ongoing fallout from the conflict.

The Ebola crisis promoted the relocation of the 2015 tournament from Morocco to Equatorial Guinea, while the 2019 tournament was moved from Cameroon to Egypt after the original host nation failed to prove the readiness of its preparation and infrastructure.

The 2019 tournament was hosted in June-July to avoid a clash with the European season and the ongoing club-vs-country rows that have regularly cast a shadow over the AFCON, but the 2021 event was scheduled for January-February to avoid unfavourable climate conditions in Cameroon.

Five tournaments, five major changes... and that was before Africa began reeling under the strain of COVID-19.

The decision to return the tournament to January-February duly created a more acute problem for CAF when the coronavirus pandemic began to take a tighter grip on Africa, with the confederation giving itself six fewer months in which to conduct the 2021 qualifying campaign.

FIFA's decision -- announced in late June -- to cancel the September international window for all continents beyond Europe and South America was the final straw for a January-February 2021 date, regardless of how Africa contends with COVID-19 over the next six months.

"The decision was motivated by the fact that we only had a few days left to contest the four outstanding dates of the qualifiers, and we didn't see when we could resume these qualifiers and finish them," CAF Executive Committee member Colonel Sita Sangare told ESPN.

"Then there's also the draw, and we must [give time to] allow the technical teams, the different coaches, to have an idea about their opponents, to prepare the competition ahead of January 2021, as had been planned.

"In light of [FIFA's] decision, it was important for us to acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is here, the figures are increasing day on day in certain countries, and, sadly, we wouldn't have been able to resume the outstanding qualifiers and conclude them before January 2021."

Heading into Tuesday's meeting, CAF had three options: Cancel the tournament; push it back to June-July 2021 and find new hosts; or postpone.

Ultimately, the federation chose the last of the three options, with CAF president Ahmad Ahmad announcing a revised January 2022 start date.

"The decision to push back the 2021 AFCON to 2022 was inevitable in light of the impact of the pandemic on the African continent," Burundi FA President Reverien Ndikuriyo told ESPN. "It was a good and wise decision by CAF chiefs to push it back by a year.

"CAF and all of the stakeholders in African football can now better organise themselves and respond to the challenges imposed on them by the pandemic, and we can organise football according to the new situation we find ourselves in."

The decision was also supported by Comoros head coach Amir Abdou, whose side currently sit atop their qualifying group.

"We respect CAF and FIFA's decision," he told ESPN. "It's completely logical considering what's going on in the world at the moment, and as the president said, the health of the people has to come first, the competition comes after.

"For now, we remain in the starting blocks and we await the new-look calendar as well as the decisions that will be taken about when we can play our outstanding qualifiers."

Decision taken on CHAN, hope for WAFU Cup of Nations

As well as the outstanding four rounds of AFCON qualifiers, CAF is also juggling the World Cup qualifying campaign, with the five teams that will qualify for Qatar 2022 needing to play eight matches -- home-and-away group stage fixtures and a two-legged playoff -- over the next two years.

The decision to push the AFCON back by a year at least gives the confederation one more international window in 2020, as well as the entirety of 2021 -- depending on the battle against coronavirus -- to make headway on the outstanding qualifiers.

Also announced on Tuesday was the decision to play the African Nations Championship -- the biennial tournament for home-based players -- in January 2021, the competition remaining with existing hosts Cameroon.

The tournament was originally due to kick off on April 4 2020, but the decision was taken to postpone indefinitely despite initial defiance from Cameroon officials that they could host despite the coronavirus.

With the qualification campaign completed already, CAF is hopeful that the tournament can take place at the start of next year.

By contrast, no decision has been taken on the regional West African (WAFU) Cup of Nations, although Burkina Faso FA President Sangare remains optimistic that the tournament can take place in Nigeria next year as planned.

"CAF's decision shouldn't impact the WAFU," Sangre told ESPN. "It's a competition that does a lot of good for our zone.

"We must hope that the coronavirus situation improves so that we can play the competition in our zone again in February, March or April.

"If the tournament were to be cancelled, it would be a huge blow for the region. We're fortunate to play in this tournament, and we hope that it will be maintained."

For Sangare and other federation chiefs, CAF's decision to allocate an additional $US16.2 million to member federations -- $US300,000 each -- in order to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 represents vital aid as they look to negotiate the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

"CAF have already released annual subventions of $200,000 to each of the African federations in order to allow them to take certain measures against the coronavirus," Sangare said.

"This supplementary fee of $US300,000 will do a lot of good when it arrives, considering our current health context.

"The impact at our level has been terrible; we've had to cancel all competitions in Burkina Faso since April, and all players have been out of action.

"In this context, this [financial] help -- as well as the FIFA funds -- will allow us to help clubs prepare for the new season, will help them pay players as many have had problems with this, and will help the federation absorb the shock [of the pandemic]."

In Burundi, where national president Pierre Nkurunziza is believed to have died in June because of COVID-19, FA chief Ndikuriyo is planning to spend the incoming support across various areas of the nation's sport.

"It will be used in all disciplines which have a link with the development of football in general, from senior football, to youngsters, to girls, to referees, to coaching, and to infrastructure," he told ESPN

Over in the Comoros, Abdou expects his federation to use the money to prevent the further spread of the virus.

"I think the federation will make good use of this money, to develop some awareness-raising policies," he said.

"I know this money can help the clubs, and can work on our policies related to COVID-19."