Football and a new purpose: More than players, more than clubs

MARCUS RASHFORD is one of the faces of 2020, a young footballer who urged the UK government to help children with school meals at a time when low-income families were being severely challenged. Rashford has become just as relevant to 2020 as Greta Thunberg was in 2018 when she led climate change protests.

His elevation to symbol for social change also set a new benchmark for footballers worldwide, introducing purpose to their role as highly-paid sports people. Increasingly, over the past few years, some football clubs and their fans have attempted to attach themselves to causes, initiatives and movements that try to use the power of football to underpin social, and occasionally, political, action.

The World Football Summit’s opening session on November 23 focused on “How to embed purpose in the fabric of football”, and suggested the role of professional footballers is changing. Young players are now realising they are not just on a “career journey” but also a “purpose journey”. They now want to be associated with good causes, either collectively or individually, such as charities, foundations and movements. Some players, such as Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín, have succeeded in appearing far more interesting and thoughtful than someone who merely kicks a ball around.

Some might say that this is long overdue: the corporate world has, over the past 15 years, pushed young people towards their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, as a means to improve the image of the firm and also to position their people as more rounded citizens. Indeed, some companies make it clear that careers are positively enhanced by a candidate’s company-endorsed extra-curricular activities. 

The rise of CSR gathered momentum after the 2008 financial crisis, some might say to represent capitalist institutions as caring, sharing bodies of philanthropic people. It was easy to be sceptical when you visited a company’s website to see staff members feeding children in the developing world. And oh yes, what does the firm do? – it makes money in the capital markets.

Even today, the sentimental advertising of a leading bank, with horses running across green fields with a gushing soundtrack, defiantly portrays the organisation as anything other than what it is. Bankers, for example, were seen as overpaid and over-indulged and therefore, a little charity involvement would do their public persona no harm at all. Actually, even prior to this shift, bankers were incredibly generous (and competitive) when it came to donations.

It could be that football is late to the game, but it seems clear that CSR is becoming part of a club’s standard offering, and players – undoubtedly coached by their clubs or entourage – are now eager to be seen as the good guys with a good heart. A whole sub-industry will now spring up, with image or CSR consultants homing in on young footballers who can enhance their reputation in one foul swoop by backing a charity with hard cash and their time. Clubs are very proactive on growing their “brand”, which is not just developed through on-pitch success but also on its community presence, sponsorship appeal and ability to generate money.

Football is in the same category as the financial industry in that huge personal wealth can be accumulated in a relatively short time frame. The demographics are very different, though, but footballers seem to get more criticism for working in a highly-paid industry, perhaps because they are more likely to be working class individuals who might have a limited education and possibly a deprived background. There has always been some resentment about people from poor origins earning big money, as if there is a huge moral obligation attached to it. However, football is an industry fuelled by the continued patronage by spectators, who rarely demonstrate their dissatisfaction even though it is in their gift to do so.

Football clubs have responded to the way society has moved on and younger generations have a different, more inclusive attitude. Corporate success isn’t just built around economic returns, but also societal returns. Consumers are attracted to companies with a good CSR record, therefore football clubs and their employees are invariably judged by the way they interact, and put back, into their locality. This is not just about charities, it is also about inclusiveness and a diverse football portfolio, support for the community and how they treat their fans.

What has effectively happened is that the football world, which is now an identifiable industry group, is now evolving to acquire the same attributes as other corporate sectors. Often seen as an insular business, influenced only by other football people, football is now being shaped by club owners and by people that bring experience from marketing, legal firms, finance, the media and professional services. On top of that, intermediaries proliferate the industry, taking their slice of the cash.

As a representative at Ligue 1 club Marseille said: “Football does not have a good image, we need to work on that.” The process has started, the game will look very different in five years time. Marcus Rashford will not be the last player to make headlines for his actions away from the football pitch and pretty soon, Barcelona will not be the only football institution to claim it is “more than a club”.

@GameofthePeople
Photos: PA Images

African football – when?

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.

Promise

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)
1 Al-Ahly Egypt 28
2 Kaizer Chiefs S.Africa 23
3 Pyramids FC Egypt 22
4 Club Africain Tunisia 20
5 Zamalek FC Egypt 18
6 Orlando P S.Africa 15
7 Wydad Cas. Morocco 12
8 TP Mazembe Congo 11
9 L’Esperance Tunisia 11
10 MC Algier Algeria 10

Money matters

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.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

 

Another time for Africa

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.

Promise

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)
1 Al-Ahly Egypt 28
2 Kaizer Chiefs S.Africa 23
3 Pyramids FC Egypt 22
4 Club Africain Tunisia 20
5 Zamalek FC Egypt 18
6 Orlando Pirates S.Africa 15
7 Wydad Casablanca Morocco 12
8 TP Mazembe Congo 11
9 L’Esperance Tunisia 11
10 MC Algier Algeria 10

Money matters

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.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA