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The challenges facing African football

Posted on Friday, 9 July 2010 09:31

From crumbling stadiums to corruption and declining interest in Africa’s own teams in favour of flashy European sides, there is a great deal of work to do to restore African football to the glory days of the past.Ponga Liwewe looks at the issues.

1. Leadership: Crisis at the CAF

African football has been stuck in a time warp, mainly due to a moribund leadership that increasingly appears to be out of touch with reality. Since Issa Hayatou was catapulted to head the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1988, football on the continent has had few triumphs to talk about and now lags behind Asia, which has slotted in behind Europe and South America.

Hayatou’s much-trumpeted achievements that include increasing the number of African teams to the FIFA World Cup and bringing football’s premier competition to Africa have both little or no association with the man who has had an iron grip on the lead-ership of African football for 22 years.

The size of African membership, currently 53, makes it the largest voting block during FIFA elections. Any candidate wishing to win the presidency needs to secure the African vote. Inevitably, Africa receives most-?favoured status‚ and this has been reflected in the increase in World Cup places. African football has also been the main beneficiary of the Financial Assistance Program and Goal Projects.

More recently, CAF’s shortcomings have been high-lighted by the farcical African Player of the Year awards. At this year’s event, none of the three contenders bothered to show up and the ceremony itself was a shambles, ending up more like a music festival than an awards night. Guests struggled to stay awake as CAF officials and ?sponsors Globacom hogged the limelight from the people who matter the most in the game – the players.

Earlier in the year, CAF infuriated the entire continent by banning the Togolese national team when it withdrew from the Africa Cup of ?Nations in Angola after a terrorist attack left three members of the Togolese party dead and others injured – not to mention the psychological impact on the team who were caught up in the attack. CAF’s insensitivity and arrogance in trying to heap the blame on the Togolese and the imposition of a ban for what they termed government interference shocked both Africa and the world.

Commercially, the Africa Cup of Nations continues to be a burden on the countries that take part. The winners of the tournament in Angola walked away with a paltry $500,000 and all the participating countries that spent millions of dollars in qualifying for, and taking part in, the competition ?received little or no commercial benefit. Meanwhile, CAF, sports agency SportFive and broadcast partner, LC2, reaped millions of dollars.

2. Domestic leagues: ?The tyranny of foreign football

Two decades ago, thousands of football fans across the African continent flocked to stadiums to watch their local club sides in action, and league football ?thrived as Africa’s players sought to make their mark domestically before hopefully winning a contract to play in Europe.

Today, the ?terraces hold a fraction of the audiences who once sat enthralled in anticipation and the prospects for African league football look bleak.?

The story of the domestic game on the continent has two sides. In North and Southern Africa, the more advanced economies of these territories enable the clubs to retain some of their talent and so the football ‘brain drain’ is not so pronounced.

A look at the squads for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations reflects this: Egypt won the tournament with only three overseas players among the 23 who made up the squad, while Tunisia’s and Algeria’s squads had a reasonable representation of ?domestic players.

The West African teams Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, on the other hand, had 23 and 22 overseas players respectively.?

So, while Ahly, Zamalek, ?Esperance and Etoile du Sahel are still able to draw sizeable crowds for domestic matches in North Africa, it is a different story across much of sub-Saharan Africa, with clubs battling to get fans into the stadiums.?

Much of Africa’s top talent play football outside of their own countries, so while the national teams bring multitudes of fans hoping to see their stars in action, which has sometimes led to mass hysteria, stampedes and even stadium deaths, club football has no such effect.

Across the continent, the fans of Gor Mahia in ?Kenya, Kampala City Council in Uganda, Mufulira Wanderers in Zambia and Rangers in Nigeria now put on Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool shirts and debate the league fortunes of these clubs rather then their own local giants. The drift in passion is understandable.?

English, Spanish, German and Italian football is available on satellite TV and though the costs of obtaining the equipment and paying subscriptions is beyond the reach of most people, access is easy in bars and informal viewing centres where shrewd businessmen charge an entrance fee to watch Lionel Messi, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samuel Eto’o and many others at the expense of local football.?

With infrastructure crumbling across much of the continent (see opposite), giving rise to comfort and security problems in derelict arenas, fans have opted to stay away. The game hasn’t been helped by the sub-standard fare on offer, with the best players often snapped up as soon as they show the slightest potential to entertain European and Asian football fans at ?Africa’s expense. Given the fact that domestic players in many cases earn a few hundred dollars a month, who can blame them for looking for the opportunity for a better life and the chance to earn amounts of money that they could previously only dream about?

3. lnfrastructure?: Poor and Decaying stadiums

While African football has come of age, with the continent’s stars now household names in the international game, much of the players’ success can be attributed to their individual efforts to make it rather than to any deliberate effort by African football to develop the game.?

Across much of the continent, the game’s infrastructure is crumbling due to corruption, lack of investment and neglect.?

While each country is likely to boast a state-of-the-art Chinese-built national stadium which proudly hosts matches of the national team, further down the scale, clubs play in crumbling dust bowls in front of a few hundred loyal fans. There are exceptions. South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup means the country will now have at least a dozen world-class stadiums, even though questions have been raised about the economic viability of some of them, given their location in less-populous parts of the country.?

More recently, Ghana and Angola, hosts of the last two Africa Cup of Nations events, built and renovated their stadiums and now have some high- quality playing arenas that will serve them well for many years to come.

The same can’t be said for many other countries. Zambia, once a power-house of African football, is a sad testimony to the decline of football on the continent. The home ground of Zambia’s ?Nkana Football Club, once one of the giants of the continental game, looks more like a scrapyard than a football stadium. The national team has been forced to play football in a small 15,000-seater arena in the north of the country because the national stadium, closed more than three years ago for renovations‚ still lies abandoned by builders with its main stand demolished and awaiting rebuilding.

Two years ago, as thousands of fans crammed into the alternative arena in Chililabombwe made their way out of the stadium after an international match, 12 people were killed in a stampede. Similar scenes have occurred in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

While football in the rest of the world has advanced to new heights, with marketing and television fueling the rise of the game, much of African football remains stuck in a time warp. Again, North Africa leads the way, with Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria running leagues that are well sponsored and with revenues pouring in from domestic television companies.

South Africa’s league is ranked as seventh in the world in terms of sponsorship, with the deal between the Premier Soccer League, ABSA Bank, South African Breweries and broadcaster SuperSport raking in approximately $280m over a five-year period. So, it is not all gloom and doom for African football. The onus is, however, on the leagues of African football to take the game to the next level.

4. Corruption: Referees and Administrators

The bane of much of ?Africa, and indeed much of the world, the scourge of corruption has not allowed football to escape. Any team travelling to international assignments will invariably return home with tales of suspect refereeing and the difficulties of succeeding abroad.

The corruption in African football transcends the field of play. Two years ago in Ghana, two teams on the verge on promotion both needed victory on the final day of the season. The matches ended 31-0 and 28-0 respectively. In the Nigerian premier league, the official broadcaster has occasionally run into difficulties in carrying out live broadcasts at certain venues where clubs sought to prevent the open bias of referees being viewed on live television.?

While corruption in football is a recognised fact worldwide, poverty on the continent and the win-at-all-costs attitude of some of the clubs makes referees susceptible to ?bribery and other inducements. In the qualifying series for the 2002 World Cup, Nigeria gave their opponents, Ghana, $25,000 after Nigeria beat them to qualify. It caused much controversy, but the Nigerian’s declared that it was a gift in line with African culture. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) conveniently looked the other way.?

During the qualifying series for the 2010 World Cup, one West African country on the verge of elimination from the competition despatched a football association committee member with a bag full of money to visit both their own and their rivals’ opponents prior to matches to ensure that the road to qualification was smoothed over. They qualified against all odds.?

This also extends into the halls of power where the benefits of becoming a committee member of CAF can cost thousands of dollars in payouts to the voting members of the confederation’s congress. The night before elections is when candidates will not hesitate to hand over envelopes of cash to ensure that they achieve victory.

As a result, African football is not led by the best candidates for the job but by those who have the means to disburse the largest amounts of cash.?

The fact that football has the ?resources of large corporations at its disposal – but none of the governance – makes it an ideal vehicle for those who have no compunction about enriching themselves at the expense of the game.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s World Cup 2010 edition in May.

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