THERE CAN be no denying that Africa has some outstanding and charismatic footballers at the moment: Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané at Liverpool, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City to name but a few. The continent has never had too much difficultly in producing exciting individuals who can light-up a stadium.
It has been 10 years since South Africa hosted the World Cup and although the competition was a cultural success, demonstrating that Africa could host a major football event, African countries do not seem to have progressed on the world stage since. Indeed, in two subsequent World Cups, only two countries (Algeria and Nigeria) have reached the last 16 of the competition. In 2018, all five African finalists were eliminated at the group stage. Only one African nation, Nigeria, has appeared in all of the last three World Cups, underlining a lack of consistency, which means progress is often difficult to maintain.
2010 – legacy?
Nevertheless, a decade on, the legacy of 2010 is not just about colourful memories, the droning of the vuvuzelas and Spain’s tiki-taka team, the competition was managed so effectively that Africa yearns to stage another World Cup. “The whole continent was behind us,” said former Ivory Coast international Didier Drogba at the World Football Summit. “South Africa was ready and it showed we finally understood what was required.”
Abdel Bah of the Confederation of African Football added: “We also let the world know that we have the passion and the will. I hope we will try and stage another soon, perhaps 2030.” Morocco have already thrown their hat in the ring to host the centenary competition, but the nostalgists will be hoping the Uruguay (the first hosts)-Argentina-Paraguay-Chile bid will be successful.
Africa might produce a considerable amount of footballing talent, but it doesn’t stay long enough in domestic competitions to have a lasting effect on the game. Sadio Mané, for example, left Senegal at 19 straight from a football academy in Dakar. Didier Drogba has never played domestic football in the Ivory Coast.
Some clubs, such as Congo’s TP Mazembe, have developed a model that enables them to monetise the talent they develop themselves. They are backed by politician Moise Kitumbi, one of the richest and most influential men in Congo. They have the confidence to play hard with the European club and have a fixed price on their best players and also negotiate a percentage on resale. But many clubs in Africa have very fragile finances and are desperate for liquidity, which means Europeans can pick-up a potential star at around a third of the market price.
One of the biggest groups of beneficiaries of the continent’s ability to unearth skilful youngsters appears to be the intermediaries who take players to France, Belgium and other countries. Just take a look at the number of “agencies” that have been established to deal with African talent. Corruption is rife as some of the men claiming to be agents are merely spotting for clubs in Europe and are able to secure a young player – who may well be underage – for a bundle of empty promises. Ultimately, African youngsters have the raw talent, the ambition to succeed and, most importantly, they are inexpensive and can be sold for huge transfer fees later in their career.
The gulf between African clubs and their counterparts in Europe is vast. There are fewer than a dozen clubs that are worth more than US$ 10 million and three of them are from Egypt – Al-Ahly, Pyramids and Zamalek – and two apiece from Tunisia and South Africa. It’s no coincidence that five of the top 10 have been Champions League contenders in the past few years.
Al-Ahly, the red devils, are the wealthiest club in Africa, worth just under US$ 30 million. They play at the 74,000-capacity Cairo Stadium, an arena designed by the architect who built Berlin’s iconic Olympic Stadium. They may not be there very long, though, as a new purpose-built stadium is in progress. They are the most decorated club across the continent of Africa, winning the CAF Champions League eight times and the Egyptian title on 41 occasions. The club provided six players for the Egypt squad in the 2018 World Cup.
The key to success for any emerging football nation is not just player production, the development of home-grown coaches is also of paramount importance. There are still too few local coaches in charge of national teams in Africa – in 2019, the African Cup of Nations, which had 24 teams participating, had just 10 – that’s 42%. That’s an improvement on the past, but Africa is still a good pay day for coaches from France, Belgium, Germany and Mexico.
10 wealthiest African clubs
|Country||Net worth ($m)|
Not that African football is awash with cash and there’s every chance the coronavirus crisis will have a very negative economic affect on the game. Dealing with the pandemic is costly for cash-strapped African football clubs, said Pitso Moisimane of Mamelodi Sundowns. “It’s an expensive process, both the testing and hygiene measures we have to take, but we want to play.”
The final stages of the African Champions League are in doubt because the rate of infection is on what is called a dangerous path. Africa took 100 days to get to 100,000 cases, but that figure doubled in 18 days and then doubled again in another 20. In South Africa, the death rate is 6.4%, while in Cameroon, where the Champions League was going to be held, the rate is 1.4% and rising.
Any plan by FIFA to stage a credible Club World Cup will lack some substance if the participants are not drawn across the continents and each of them has a chance to properly compete, otherwise it’s a European competition with a couple of dozen makeweights involved. Therefore, it is in the interests of the game that African football can fulfil its potential and not just act as a nursery for wealthier clubs. How the continent would rejoice if one of their clubs could emerge as a worthy opponent to the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of the football world. Actually, how we would all love it.