European clubs playing African clubs in friendlies: Who Benefits?

Apart from the FIFA Club World Cup, there are no opportunities for African sides to play against the best in Europe at a competitive level. This does not prevent friendlies between teams from each continent happening, but does African football really benefit from these games?

Whenever a European team visits Africa it causes a lot of commotion. Due to the comparative lack of finances within African club football, it is not often that world class talent graces the continent and as such it becomes a big story when they do so.

So what is the reason for these games happening? An argument in favour of the friendlies is that it provides solid experience for the players as they come up against some higher quality players than they could dream of facing in their domestic scene. While there is an element of truth to this, it has to be remembered that it is very unlikely that the European clubs will be playing at full intensity. These games are rarely pre season friendlies, and often happen during the middle of the season, in particular during the winter break. The players may be in the swing of things but they are not going to risk injury when they have crucial games coming up, and instead the players will use the game as an opportunity to keep sharp for a period without games. 

Normally when these matches happen it will be a friendly involving one of the top teams in Africa against a variety of top European sides. A recent example of this would be Barcelona’s trip to South Africa to face Mamelodi Sundowns which the Spanish giants won 3-1, which is a surprisingly close scoreline given that Barcelona had every star at their disposal on the pitch including Lionel Messi. A potential benefit of these games is that, if the African side do themselves justice, it can provide a good opportunity for their players to exhibit themselves to an entire audience that previously would have very little coverage of African football. An argument can be made that this match in particular paved the way for Percy Tau to get a move to Europe as he joined Brighton shortly after holding his own against one of the best teams that Europe has to offer.

Up to this point, it appears that all of the benefit from these games is for the African teams. However, while they are the ones that receive the most exposure from these games, in a sense it is the European clubs that truly gain more. After all, you have to question why Barcelona would sacrifice a historic unbeaten La Liga title campaign for a mid season friendly on the other side of the world. It is believed that Sundowns owner Patrice Motsepe forked out somewhere between 45-100 million Rand to facilitate Barcelona’s trip to South Africa, which works out at between 3-7 million Euros. At the time of writing, the most that Sundowns have ever spent on an incoming transfer is in the region of 1 million Euros, which pales in comparison to the amount that they paid to Barcelona.

Hosting a club of Barcelona’s stature does a lot of good for growing the brand of a club like Sundowns, but the use of the money gives the impression that the friendly was more of a vanity product from the owner. If his main priority was to improve the club or South African football as a whole then the money would have been more focused into developing the game at a grass roots level and having more productive youth development. At the very least, that money could have been used to improve the team as it would cover the transfer fees for most of the best players in the country and surrounding areas. 

The imbalanced use of money in football was alluded to by the fans of Club Africain when they faced notorious spenders Paris Saint Germain in a friendly in 2017. Considering the historical and current links between Tunisia and France, it seemed natural that two of the biggest teams from each country would face each other but it was met with a frosty reception by the Club Africain fans. The score finished 3-0 to PSG but it was most noted for a banner which was raised by the Club Africain fans saying ‘Created by the poor, stolen by the rich’. As the banner was written in English, it is clear that the fans really wanted to send a message out to the rest of the world that these financial powerhouses were a slap in the face to clubs such as the ones in Africa who can struggle to make end’s meet at all times and lose all of their best players to Europe year after year. 

Another issue to question from the perspective of African teams is the lack of partnerships with European clubs. The only notable partnership that exists is that between Ajax Cape Town and their parent club Ajax, however this is a generally one sided arrangement as the South Africans have lost several of their most notable players such as Steven Pienaar and Eyong Enoh to Ajax. Aside from this, there only really exists the SportPesa connection between most of Kenya’s biggest clubs and Everton. The Merseyside outfit are sponsored by SportPesa, and as a result they travel to East Africa every summer for a friendly tournament, most recently taking on Sharks as well as Gor Mahia the year before. While there are clear sponsorship incentives, it remains unclear how much the Kenyan teams really benefit from the matches outside of the exposure that playing against a Premier League regular brings. 

If there was to be an improvement to the current state of affairs, it would involve more financial and tangible partnerships between African and European clubs, which benefit both sides of the arrangement. Whether that involves receiving players on loan, financial partnerships or the chances to get some more exposure in Europe, there has to be something more to show for the African sides. 

Of course there are positives to African clubs hosting these friendlies. The brand of the club will grow to an extent, and many of the players will fulfill childhood dreams of playing against some of world football’s elite. After all, where else other than the SportPesa Cup would players from Kenya’s domestic league be able to face players like Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson. 

With that being said, if there was more of a focus on long term planning and smart investment instead of one off branding moves and vanity from the owners, then perhaps one day the African clubs would be the ones with the top quality players rather than losing them to European teams every year. These matches are an interesting experience but the clubs should prioritise the loyal fans they already have before they worry about appealing to the rest of the world.