African Super League: Hypocrisy and hidden agendas

WHEN the European Super League project floundered, FIFA were among the fierce critics of the attempt by clubs to create their own elite competition. Most people spotted the agenda of old and new money clubs and very few football folk were in agreement with a scheme that would turn the football world upside down. Fast forward a couple of months and FIFA appear to be in support of an African Super League, a competition aimed at creating a positive growth trajectory in African football that can make the continent’s top clubs more competitive and financially sustainable.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) appointed a new president in March 2021, Patrice Motsepe, a South African mining billionaire who seems to be following the agenda of FIFA’s Gianni Infantino, who wants to revolutionise African football. Motsepe was Infantino’s choice and was doubtless assisted in the voting by the FIFA president’s whistle-stop tour of Africa.[1]

Rich in raw materials

The rationale may be slightly different from the aborted European Super League, but the longer-term damage may ultimately be similar. Africa’s progress as a football hub has not been as consistent as experts may have predicted: Pelé’s 40-year prediction of a World Cup winner emerging from Africa, made in 1974, never materialised and there are no visible signs of that ever happening. While Africa is still a rich market in terms of untapped talent, its clubs and national teams cannot compete outside their own territory.

That said, in every UEFA Champions League final in the past six years, there has been at least one African involved and the likes of Mo Salah (Egypt), Sadio Mané (Senegal) and Achraf Hakimi (Morocco) are among the top players in the world[2]. But Africa’s stars are exported at a very young age, hence domestic football is very much a breeding ground. 

At present, European clubs and intermediaries seem to dine royally on a pipeline of young footballers coming out of all corners of Africa. There has been a steady increase in European clubs opening academies as they attempt to capitalise on player development. Some academics have linked this to a form of neo-colonial exploitation of raw materials (in this case footballers), for consumption and wealth generation in Europe.[3]

Nigeria has the eighth highest number of expatriates playing in Europe and Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal also provide many players to European clubs.[4] Interestingly, East Africa is relatively under represented in European football, which has been explained by a lack of consistent youth development, corrupt and incompetent leadership and inadequate funding, as well as the absence of a migration culture in the region.[5]

While the European Super League looked like a mutinous project, the African version seems to be partially motivated by a desire to make the continent more competitive and marketable to broadcasters and sponsors. It is not the creation of a club cartel, but driven by governing bodies. It does pose the question that if UEFA had been behind the ESL, would the outcome have been different?

Africa is often confused as being a generic continent, rather like Europe is presumed by some to have little difference across its many countries. But there are six time zones in Africa and 54 different nations. Furthermore, it has a population of 1.3 billion, representing 17.2% of the world’s people and it is growing faster than any other continent – Africa’s population grew by 2.49% between 2019 and 2020. There are around a thousand professional football clubs in Africa. How can a Super League of 20 clubs, presumably the wealthiest, most popular and successful of these thousand football entities, truly represent such a wide and diverse continent?

Devaluation

It is not difficult to imagine the real motives. Creating a marketable and prosperous African competition could provide a huge market opportunity for FIFA and its partners. Although it might make teams like Orlando Pirates, Zamalek and Al-Ahly more well known around the world, a super league may also devalue Africa by making the competition the sole standard bearer for football rather than its many leagues, clubs and countries. 

That may be a way of removing the need to work on raising the bar for an entire continent – the global franchise could therefore become: UEFA, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, AFC, OCEANIA and the African Super League, rather than CAF. And if that proves successful, why not return to the drawing board and create an Asian Super League that can consolidate another region?

FIFA are eager to implement an expanded club world cup that embraces the entire world, but as it stands, the competition would be imbalanced and Europe and South America would dominate, with Europe probably winning with ease. There doesn’t seem much value in creating a structure that doesn’t deliver anything rather than more of the same.

However, if the standard can be raised in Africa and Asia, FIFA may have something.

Meritocracy is a fundamental requirement for football, so any super league must facilitate the ups and downs of the game, in other words, allow for relegation and promotion from below. But we are in an era of self-preservation, not just in sport but in society in general and football is an eco-system. It should be the responsibility of all major clubs to ensure big and small can thrive in an environment of mutual cooperation. Creating elitism undoubtedly has the effect of setting lesser clubs adrift, which can also mortally damage parts of that eco-system. If Egypt’s top clubs, for example, were to play a key role in the African Super League, what happens to their domestic rivals? 

If the top clubs see their longer-term competitors as Europe’s crème de la crème, they may have to wait an extraordinary length of time before that becomes a reality. Africa, so far, has been on the periphery of the global development of the game in terms of monetary rewards. Despite this, the lifeblood of the expanded modern game, broadcasting, is equally important to African football. Since the pandemic, South African clubs, for example, have experienced great difficulties because of lost TV revenues.[6]

The revolution will be televised

CAF’s president has a tough task to improve the image and professionalism of African football. The sport has been hounded by scandals and is in bad need of a decent broadcasting deal after the long-time partnership with France’s Legardère Sports was cancelled due to an alleged breach of competition rules. An African Super League may be an attractive project for broadcasters, but where would that leave the CAF Champions League, which has limited quality and has been expensive for teams to compete in?. [7]

The top African club by market value is El-Ahly of Egypt, with a value of € 25.5 million[8] – they are the only club that tops € 20 million across the continent. Other big names are worth much less – Esperance of Tunisia comes in at € 18 million, while the Casablanca duo of Wydad and Raja are valued at €13.3 million and € 11.5 million respectively. South Africa have some famous names, but Mamelodi Sundowns (€ 18.9 million), Orlando Pirates (€ 14.7 million) and Kaizer Chiefs (€ 11.1 million) have a long way to go.

These are early days in the African Super League idea and there will be countless hurdles, anti ASL sentiment and accusations of hypocrisy that will be thrown around. Whatever CAF’s plans, any change to the structure has to be woven into the various domestic football leagues to ensure that the essential element of football remains intact. If this is different from the self-serving European Super League revolution, the African confederation and its top clubs need to show it. And FIFA must be wholly transparent about its agenda.

@GameofthePeople


[1] Play the Game: FIFA’s choice for new president in African football cements crisis in CAF by Oscar Rothstein.  April 15, 2021.

[2] KPMG Football Benchmark Player valuations

[3] The capitalist game: Football in Africa by Adam Rodgers Johns (roepe.net), January 2019.

[4] CIES Football Observatory, Expatriate Footballers, May 2021

[5] Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Why are East African players absent from European football? Christian Ungruhe and Mads Backer Schmidt, May 2020.

[6] Life without Sports: Socio Economic Impacts of COVID-19 on South African Society from a Football Lens by Bellita banda Chitsamatanga, Wayne Malinga, Nqobile Sikhosana, February 2021.

[7] Financial Times: Football stars ought to shine on Africa’s own stage by David Pilling, May 20, 2021.

[8] Source: Statista: Most valuable clubs in Africa by market value 2020-21

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