CECAFA rebrands to CECAFA U23 Senior Challenge Cup and what it means for member countries.

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By Alex Bossa

Thursday March 11th, 2021 will be remembered as the day the CECAFA region took a bold decision that would determine the future of football in the region. Ahead of the general assembly of the Confederation of African football, the CECAFA members held a meeting at Sofitel Hotel where they decided on member countries to field their U23 teams for the forthcoming CECAFA senior challenge cup in Ethiopia.

The members went on to give a provision of three over age players who will be permitted to take part in this year’s tournament. With the region struggling to make an impression on both the African and International scene, this move seems to be like a sound of sweet melody.

Such an arrangement is similar to the path that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) took since the Barcelona 1992 games where male soccer teams are required field their under 23 teams with a provision of allowing only three players who are over age, a move that has since seen both Nigeria (1996) and Cameroun (2000) win gold.

The CECAFA Under 23 Senior Challenge Cup if well planned and managed can yield similar returns like those attained by both Nigeria and Cameroon. The tournament can help the young generation build on their value during preparations, attain resilience, attitude and above all build a partnership that can go on to conquer the continent and the world at large for decades.

Of course in the past, there have been CECAFA under age tournaments like the U17 and U20 tournaments but these have not yielded the required outcome with no follow up on these rising stars who end up fading away and disappearing into thin air.

This year’s tournament gives a chance for those who starred in the under-age group tournaments to further their careers as opposed to the previous editions which had them under looked in preference to the over age group.

Uganda’s 2021 AFCON U20 heroes in Mauritania have got another chance to prove to the world that the 2020 CECAFA U20 championship success was not a fluke but rather based on ability. It will only take an act of cruelty to neglect the boys who took part in the 2020 edition. 

This year’s U23 senior challenge cup tournament should be treated more as a series and a climbing curve for players, starting right from the U20 tournament in Tanzania in 2020. 

The timing of the tournament has also been brought to question. The period in which the tournament is held is not favorable for both local and professional footballers since the tournament has always been held between November and December where it is a busy schedule for most of the clubs across the globe and clubs are not willing to let go of their players.

Actually, the previous senior challenge cup tournaments did not yield much, given the fact that they only attracted locally based players, leaving out the professionals who would bring the professional touch to attract potential investors to sponsor the tournament.

Young players provide a better solution to the timing of the tournament issue since the majority of them are considered squad players at their parent clubs and the clubs can easily afford to do away with them during the demanding periods of the year.

Also the increasing competitiveness of the CHAN tournament that was created by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to cater for locally based players has increased the number of games being played which gives little room for players to rest and in the end they burn out. 

The Under 23 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup will provide senior players with the required rest time so that they can now concentrate on the major continental tournaments.

The limiting of the number of the over age players is also a blessing to the CECAFA member countries since it will limit the number of seasonal players. The seasonal players not only deter the progress of the upcoming stars but also do not give the region the required competition.

The fact that the last time the region has ever produced a continental champion was in 1970 when Sudan hosted and lifted the tournament tells why the CECAFA Senior Challenge cup needed such amendments with the region lagging far behind other continental regional bodies.

The tournament has not lived to its billing as the oldest sub-regional football organization on the continent where to date it has never produced a team that has participated in the final tournament of the FIFA World Cup.

The fact that the success in the CECAFA Senior Challenge tournament does not count on the team’s FIFA world rankings justifies why the tournament should permanently be left for the U23 as a grooming ground for the senior teamS. This arrangement will also help CECAFA region countries to prepare for the Olympics and the all-African games which use similar age categories for their tournaments.

Another fact is that the under-age tournaments tend to attract highly rated soccer agents who prefer youth to senior footballers because the youths command a high transfer value and negotiation power. In the end, the region is likely to experience an exodus of players to top European leagues.

Picking a leaf from the Los Angeles Games of 1984 where a compromise was struck between the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) and the IOC to restrict players who had participated in the World Cup not to participate in the Olympic games, going forward CECAFA should also put similar measures such as limiting on players who have appeared more than three times in the tournament not to appear again so that chance is given to the emerging stars. 

It is yet to be determined if the age limit on the senior challenge cup will also count for future CECAFA senior challenge tournaments after the 2021 edition in Ethiopia.

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