Hayatou, Infantino, Motsepe… investigating the scandals of the Confederation of African Football

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: AFCON: Plagued by scandals

By Georges Dougueli, special correspondent in Yaoundé
Posted on Monday, 10 January 2022 14:02, updated on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 11:38

Failures, nepotism, wars of influence… The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has been plagued by scandal. The latest: a chaotic situation surrounding television rights, which has damaged African football.

This is part 1 of a 3-part investigative series

Slumped in an armchair at the back of his barely lit office, Issa Hayatou does not get up to welcome his visitors, nor does he shake their hands. In this almost deserted building in the heart of Yaounde, there is a gloomy atmosphere, accentuated by the hollowed features of his emaciated face. It is one of the hallmarks of the disease that is weakening him.

The deposed emperor of African football carries the weight of his 75 years, but also of a tenacious grudge. He has neither forgotten nor forgiven what “they” did to him. Even less so the ultimate humiliation inflicted on him last August by the Ethics Committee of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), he, honorary president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), which he led for nearly thirty years (1988-2017), is now suspended until August 2022 from all football-related activities.

The new leaders of world football probably did not want to meet him in January in the lounges of the Yaoundé stadium, where the Cameroonian authorities would inevitably have invited him for the opening of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), on 9 January.

He was fired from “his” own CAN due to the accusations stacking up against him. He is accused of having breached the rules of competition by signing a contract with Lagardère Sports, and of not having informed some members of the executive committee of CAF of the renewal of this collaboration with the French group, partner of the institution since 2008.

“When I left CAF, there were more than 133 million euros in cash reserves. Go and ask my replacements today how the finances are going,” Issa Hayatou says bitterly.

He will say no more. Only the flashes of light in his eyes betray the torment caused by his self-imposed silence. He plans to leave Yaoundé at the beginning of January. “It’s good timing. I will go to Europe for a medical check-up when the competition opens.”

Two suspended presidents

CAF president Issa Hayatou (L) shakes hands with his successor Ahmad Ahmad on 17 February 2020 in Yaounde
CAF president Issa Hayatou (L) shakes hands with his successor Ahmad Ahmad on 17 February 2020 in Yaounde © AFP

Hayatou’s successor at the head of the body, Ahmad Ahmad will not be among the distinguished guests at CAN either. Not only because he too has health problems, but also and above all because the Malagasy is not sure that his presence is desired. From his hospital bed, where he answered our questions by phone, he also refuses to give up, despite his weariness and disappointment.

His friends of yesteryear let him down and FIFA’s ethics committee ended up disposing of him. Obsessed by his ambition and by a desire to put an end to the long reign of the “lamido” of Garoua, the nickname given to Hayatou, he embarked on a quest with a fatal outcome. The balance sheet of his mandate is marked by a decline in revenue due to the termination in November 2019 of the contract with the group Lagardère Sports.

The French group is at the confluence of the trajectories of the two former presidents.

Is it to get rid of a tarnished image that this company specialising in sports rights management, 75% of which was acquired in February 2020 by the American investment fund H.I.G. Capital, has changed its name to Sportfive? Its managers, whom we tried to contact, refused to comment. The case is still pending before the arbitration and commercial courts in Switzerland and France where Lagardère is trying to obtain compensation for the damage it suffered when the CAF terminated the contract.

In the aftermath of its leaders’ decisions, it is African football that is the big loser. At the March 2021 assembly in Rabat, Morocco, the head of CAF’s finance department, Fouzi Lekjaa, tried to explain why CAF had accumulated a deficit of 9.7 million euros in cash flow, a loss of 35.5 million euros in reserves and a shortfall of 21.5 million euros in commercial revenues compared to the previous year. This is due to the cancellation of the broadcasting and marketing agreement between the confederation and Lagardère-Sportfive.

To understand the seriousness of the situation, it is necessary to understand the system of media and marketing rights on which the confederation has long relied to finance its activities. CAF centralised the marketing of the media rights of national federations for competitions such as CAN, the African Championship of Nations, (CHAN), the Champions League, with the responsibility of delegating the exploitation of the rights to the chosen partners.

Cash reserves

The first contract between CAF and Lagardère Sports, an agency specialised in sports marketing, began in 2008, during CAN in Ghana, and ended in 2016. We are able to reveal the details exclusively. The contract was initially for a guaranteed minimum of €130 million over eight years. But the commercial performance was underestimated. For example, for the 2015 CAN finals in Equatorial Guinea alone, the guaranteed minimum was set at €9 million, to be divided between the various federations. However, according to our sources, the agency ended up making a profit of €28 million. These excess profits were used to build up the confederation’s cash reserves.

Based on this better than expected performance, CAF re-evaluated its competitions to negotiate the new contract. In 2017, a contract worth €960 million over twelve years was signed. Beyond this threshold, the two partners were paid on the surpluses made according to a distribution grid. The new agreement included CAN qualifying rounds, which were not part of the package to be marketed in the old contract.

In the end, it was the renewal of the contract that jammed the machine. Issa Hayatou renewed the contract by taking liberties with the procedures in force and without launching a call for tenders. However, an Egyptian marketing agency founded in 2009, Presentation Sport, had submitted a bid of 1 billion euros. “The candidates were not jostling for position,” a member of Hayatou’s entourage now explains. What about Presentation Sport? “Someone had slipped an envelope under a desk. For us, it was not a serious matter,” the same source continued.

Opaque management

Gianni Infantino received by Cameroonian President Paul Biya during Chan 2020, organised by Cameroon.
Gianni Infantino received by Cameroonian President Paul Biya during Chan 2020, organised by Cameroon.© MABOUP

With the benefit of hindsight, the Confederation administration was wrong to underestimate the case. In March 2017, Presentation Sport took CAF to court in Egypt and to FIFA’s Ethics Committee. Found guilty of having distorted the rules of competition and of having signed the contract without involving certain members of the executive committee, the “old man” had thus offered fatal weapons to his opponents.

A few weeks later, in March 2017, he was defeated by Ahmad Ahmad in the election for the presidency of the Confederation. Elected to the head of the body, the Malagasy was quick to question the principle of centralising the marketing of TV rights for World Cup qualifiers.

For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a consortium led by Lagardère agreed to a clause providing for a guaranteed minimum of 21 million euros. But at the time, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria refused to cede their rights. The variable bonus paid for performance was therefore not given to them. About 16 million was redistributed to the other federations. What happened to the remaining 4 million? A mystery. The Ahmad Ahmad administration is strongly suspected of misappropriating the funds.

In the corridors of FIFA, it was hoped that Hayatou’s departure would end the problems of opacity that plagued CAF. During his reign, the large sums of money from the TV rights contract were the source of Hayatou’s immense power. But his management proved to be nebulous, to say the least. All transactions were done in cash, even salaries were paid in cash. In spite of this, the Prince of Garoua was able to keep his nose clean for all these years. In 2014, a corruption scandal swept through FIFA, engulfing its then boss Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini. Hayatou was not worried.

The arrival of Ahmad did not put an end to bad practices. In November 2020, the Malagasy was found guilty by FIFA’s ethics committee of “failing in his duty of loyalty, granting gifts and other advantages, managing funds in an inappropriate manner and abusing his position as president of CAF”.

In September 2018, a General Assembly was convened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The Assembly agreed to put an end to the centralisation for the qualifiers for the World Cup scheduled for Qatar in 2022. A few months later, FIFA wrote to all the African federations to ask them to reverse this decision, which it had prompted. It asked them to grant it the mandate to market the TV and marketing rights. This is a novelty. Before that, CAF only centralised the media rights. This would allow it to display its own sponsors during home matches.

Not only is FIFA reversing a decision taken a few months earlier, but it is offering the federations a partnership without specifying the minimum guaranteed. According to a source at the heart of the negotiations, the federations were simply promised verbally that they would receive at least as much as for the Russia 2018 qualifiers. “This in itself is curious because at the time CAF was only centralising and marketing the media rights. How could Fifa have proposed the same amount?” our source wonders.

In October 2019, Zurich sent a team of in-house executives to Cairo led by Fatma Samoura – appointed secretary general – assisted by people close to Gianni Infantino such as Luca Piazza, director of reforms, and Mario Gallavotti, general supervisor. A month later, Ahmad Ahmad commissioned CAF’s commercial director and secretary general, Abdelmounaïm Bah, to unilaterally terminate his contract with Lagardère Sports.

A fatal contractual breach

But why? “This agency had no competitor. President Hayatou was managing rationally, but he was unwise to sign the contract without taking the rules into account. We were under pressure from the Egyptian courts, we had no choice but to terminate the contract,” the Malagasy explained to us.

In 2017, a report by the competition commission of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) described the contract between Lagardère Sports and CAF as having anti-competitive effects.

The termination of the contract with Lagardère has had disastrous consequences for African football.

The rights to the World Cup, which FIFA had already taken over the marketing of, have not been bought. Despite the election of Motsepe in March 2021, FIFA has not managed to sign a single broadcasting contract. None of the potential buyers mentioned, such as the Chinese Wanda Group, have made a concrete offer. In recent months, the crisis has been obvious. After four days of qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar, none of the major broadcasters in Africa picked up the signal. As a result, the matches were only broadcast on FIFA’s YouTube channel.

In its desperate search for a broadcaster, FIFA preferred to postpone the start of the African zone’s qualifiers several times, though the official reason given was the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, in the second half of 2021, the scheduling of qualifying matches for Qatar 2022 is proceeding at an insane pace, sometimes at the rate of one match every three days. Time is of the essence, as all the qualified teams must be known by March 2022. This is a prerequisite for the World Cup draw to be held in April.

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