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It is easy to forget that this was meant to be Issa Hayatou’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON); a swansong for his likely retirement, a gift to his fellow countrymen after three decades at the helm of the African Football Federation (CAF).
Instead, it is Patrice Motsepe’s first tournament as CAF President following his unopposed election last March, with the South African mining magnate promising a new era of probity and secure finances.
More importantly, he is seeking to rebuild the organisation’s credibility after the disaster of being placed under external administration.
Price of independence
A lot has changed since the decision in 2014 to choose Cameroon as host. By 2017, after 29 years in power, Hayatou was finally ousted after a coordinated campaign by the new FIFA President Gianni Infantino. As a long-time ally of Sepp Blatter and having backed Sheikh Salman against Infantino to run the global game, Hayatou suddenly found himself vulnerable. In stepped a little-known administrator from Madagascar, Ahmad Ahmad, elevated to the top of CAF on a ticket promising change.
Never in the history of our institutions has the FIFA Secretary General been placed on secondment to take control of a confederation, even with the latter’s consent.
Ahmad proved a calamity, mired in allegations of misconduct, an arrest in a Paris hotel, botched contracts and a $40m collapse in dollar reserves, ending in arguably a low-point in CAF’s history. Infantino intervened to effectively take over the federation, parachuting in Fatma Samoura as FIFA’s “General Delegate for Africa” in the summer of 2019 for an initial six months.
Ahmad eventually received a five-year ban (reduced to two by the Court of Arbitration for Sport). Ironically, some of the loudest criticism came from Europe. “Never in the history of our institutions has the FIFA Secretary General been placed on secondment to take control of a confederation, even with the latter’s consent,” complained Uefa President Aleksander Ceferin.
Infantino countered criticism with a straight face. “What does it mean, colonialism?” he asked. “I don’t know. It’s not part of my vocabulary. I know what it means to work, to team up, to roll up your sleeves, to go on the pitch and help and that is what we are doing.”
But the Ahmad experience revealed a contradiction in Infantino’s politicking: it was, after all, his own man who ultimately brought CAF to its knees. All the efforts put into bringing down Hayatou started to look needless and counterproductive.
That did not stop the FIFA President energetically seeking to ensure Motsepe took the post this time round. After brokering meetings in Morocco and Mauritania, the other rivals for the job dropped out of the race late in the day, instead offered sinecures on an expanded panel of Vice-Presidents. So far, so like the ancien regime.
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Soon after, Infantino’s friend, Veron Mosengo-Omba, moved across from FIFA to become CAF Secretary-General. Football administration in Africa was yet again being defined by personalities and power grabs.
In return for exerting his influence, Infantino has now received CAF’s backing for his pet project of a biennial World Cup and the proposed African Super League. He will also expect African support for his own FIFA re-election bid in 2023.
Hayatou’s troubled legacy
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether Hayatou will even attend a single match, including in his home city of Garoua, where he likes to suggest he has retired for a quiet life on the farm. He is currently subject to a one-year ban from “taking part in any kind of football-related activity” following a decision by FIFA’s Ethics Committee last summer.
The adjudication found that “Mr Hayatou had breached his duty of loyalty in his position as CAF president, by entering, in the name and on behalf of the confederation, into an anti-competitive agreement with Lagardère Sport which was detrimental and caused significant damage to CAF.”
Specifically, there was the conclusion that Hayatou had erred in “signing the MoU with Lagadère Sports on 11 June 2015, which legally bound the confederation to the company following a negotiation, discussion and drafting process that was conducted in haste (long before the expiry of the relevant deadline to reach an agreement), without appropriately testing the market, contacting other competitors or conducting a tender procedure in order to secure the best possible offer […] which resulted in the acceptance of a deal for a significantly lower value ($200m), and a longer duration than the confederation’s initial proposal/objective.”
That $1bn deal with Lagardère Sport, signed in 2016 and meant to run until 2028, was unilaterally ripped up in 2019 by the new regime after falling foul of competition rules in Egypt, where CAF is headquartered. It became a symbol of incompetence and bad planning.
Motsepe has a reputation for his business success at home, as well as a history of involvement in football with the Mamelodi Sundowns. He will need those skills to ensure sustainable funding via new broadcast deals alongside the existing long-term sponsorship agreement with Total.
Charting a course between Infantino’s demands and the continent’s desires will likewise be an invidious task. A World Cup every two years would call AFCON’s status and current timetable into serious question, something FIFA appeared to acknowledge this month by floating the prospect of a move to October for the continent’s leading tournament. Fresh manoeuvring has already begun. Relations with may soon come under strain once again.
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