To most British fans, the Africa Cup Of Nations is an irritant. In this country, the biennial tournament is really just associated with the inconvenient absence of key players at a crucial time of the season and, therefore, battles a stigma with those supporters who measure everything in accordance with its effect on their Premier League team.
Look beyond that though and you’ll get to enjoy a really under-appreciated part of the football calendar.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a lecture. This won’t be one of those articles which chastises you for not taking an interest in African football and neither is it going to feature any contrived claims about obscure players. In fact, quite the opposite: for a casual European observer, ignorance in the ACN is actually bliss.
Football, as we all know, is over-covered. Everybody has an opinion about everything and each Premier League, Bundesliga or Serie A weekend now feels like a bit of a battle. Matchdays have become proving grounds, where writers, social media users and normal fans all try to out-do each other with quasi-insightful remarks and facetious wit.
It’s an exaggeration, of course, but English football progressively seems to be more centred around memes and cynicism than it is goals and scorelines.
The Africa Cup of Nations doesn’t have that. Or, at least, it doesn’t from an English vantage point. Because of the comparative lack of interest - and knowledge - in this country, the games feel fresher. In the participating countries, the normal footballing debates presumably rage around players, managers and tactics, but outsiders are not forced to take part in any of them.
Similarly, because very few claim to be any sort of authority on African football, one viewer is really as ignorant as the next. There is clearly a time and a place for tactical discussions and fierce debate in English football, but the volume of opinions can be very overbearing and can become disproportionate to the actual events.
While there is clearly a strong appetite for the dozens of ‘things we learned/400 conclusions’-style articles which follow every league game, it’s also nice to enjoy matches without having to read them and without having to contemplate what it all means when the final-whistle sounds.
To the neutral, these games are just isolated pockets of entertainment.
And that’s what the Africa Cup of Nations is to most of us. It’s just football. It’s the sport reduced to the simple pleasure of watching one side trying to beat another. The statistics don’t matter, the refereeing controversies are incidental and the following day’s national newspapers aren’t littered with quotes from a bitter, defeated manager.
Like the Copa America and the Asia Cup, the ACN almost exists in a vacuum. It’s there for those who are interested, but completely unobtrusive to those who are not. There will always be tedious, pseudo-aficionados who want you to know just how fascinated they are by the non-populist parts of the game, but they are a mercifully small percentage in this instance.
Pressure isn’t something you associate with football-watching, but fandom has become very competitive and the need to demonstrate complete mastery of the sport at all times can be very wearing. Rather than being a nuisance, a mid-season tournament in which the supporter has no loyalty to any of the sides is actually a perfect detox from that and from the constant bluster of club football. It provides a break from the little agendas and the endless tribalism which dominate fan culture and it offers a return to pure entertaining, neutrality.
Watch it. Or don’t. There will be no test at the end.