Are Regional Federations in Africa still relevant?

A video surfaced of the CAF President, Ahmad Ahmad, animated against negative stereotyping of Africa. Call it a misunderstanding. But he didn’t take too well to an Algerian journalist implying that the 24-team tournament meant “many countries won’t be able to organize AFCON again.” If you have the patience to scroll through weeks of tweets, you’ll find the whole clip. I recognize that he’s the new villain, at the helm of African football, but I must side with Ahmad Ahmad.

There are, easily, more than 20 African countries that can host the expanded AFCON. This with adequate Government backing of course. Unfortunately, even in football we see Africa treated as a monolith. The game in this continent is not just about “the naive goalkeeper,” the burly striker, burly midfielder and burly defender. These ones are described by, we pray, well-meaning commentators using alternative terms like “beast.”

I reckon that Africans also deserve to be singled out and stereotyped. If the countries within countries on the British Isles can have distinguishing traits, surely the “overpopulated” countries across Africa have individuality. It would take a lot of work because the ethnicities hodgepodged into 54 nation-states all feel they are special.

5 regional federations

An easier way to categorize African football is by regions. These are crystallized by the respective regional federations.

 

There is UNAF for North Africa, one of the last holds for true Ultras fans on Earth. There is COSAFA, which is a bunch of countries trying to live outside South Africa’s overwhelming shadow. Angola has come closest. CECAFA constitutes Eastern African countries that refuse to accept middle and long-distance running as their sport, and not football. The closest to fulfilling observer fantasies about African football are WAFU, West Africa, and the unnoticed UNIFFAC in Central Africa. But only close.

These regional federations may not work perfectly, nothing in Africa does, but they have done some thankless work. Most prominent, the national team tournaments they organized served as an international platform for domestic-based players. The same goes for youth and, if lucky, women’s competitions. This is most crucial to African countries that for a long time were not even close to AFCON qualification, leave alone the World Cup.

As things stand, only the national team tournaments of WAFU and COSAFA have clarity on continued future relevance to their respective football landscapes. The former got into a partnership  that is expected to go above and beyond. To which Senegal FA President, Augustin Senghor said, “The support of Fox Sports as a global leader in sports broadcasting will help us further develop and promote our football.”

The others didn’t remain consistent with what they set out to do. In particular, UNAF and CECAFA have a shared heritage of collapsing exciting club competitions. At least at last check. The former tried to pit the league and cup champions of the member countries. It could only do so for 3 years, between 2008 and 2010, without Egypt. One may argue that these events were a hard sell for a region, on paper, choke-full of CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup contenders.

But what is CECAFA’s excuse? East African football clubs have been overlooked for some time. So, every year they found relevance and competition in the CECAFA Club Cup. It was really nice to have the rivalry between Tanzanian and Kenyan football clubs – with Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and others sprinkled in. If you have never seen it, blame CAF for holding out against the expansion of the Champions League group stage for so long. And even now, we don’t have 32 teams yet.

How did it all go wrong?

The apparent demise of the CECAFA Club Cup will be credited to a newly formed tournament. One of the biggest betting companies in Africa cut to the chase and decided to pick popular clubs of Tanzania and Kenya for its “Super Cup.” The element of knockout football is preserved by invitation of further filler teams to be knocked out. This began in 2017. CECAFA’s official response was to complain about being undermined. At least it was so since such words came from Nicholas Musonye, a long-time Secretary General. “We asked SportPesa to sponsor the two tournaments but they rejected.

I am surprised that they are now sponsoring the same factions that have been sabotaging Cecafa. They said they have no money but they are now running such a tournament.”

UNAF’s efforts, on the other hand, were dwarfed by another rejuvenation of UAFA. UAFA keeps the concept of an Arab footballing world alive. This body presently runs the second most lucrative club competition in the world. At 2018 prize money of $7.5 million, its Arab Club Champions Cup laughs off the CAF Champions League offer of $2.5 million. UAFA also did another unthinkable of getting the triad of Al Ahly, Zamalek and Esperance Tunis to participate. One can only assume this new cup will increase in importance, at the expense of UNAF. The prestige of the CAF Champions League does go some way to immune itself.

The cup competitions will seemingly not survive. The national team ones now have to contend with CHAN. Many hold reservations about it. No surprise. There can be misgiving that footballers based in Africa are 2nd class citizens in their confederation’s eye. CHAN involves 16 teams and qualification is by region. Will it be expanded to 24 teams? This expansion strategy is flavor-of-the-month. Africa, Asia, Europe, and the World Cup all did it. Who cares about the dilution of quality? Who cares about interesting qualifiers? Maybe not Europeans but Africans used to.

And even if CHAN is not expanded, there is another ace against the regional national team contests. The club tournaments in Africa saw the respective group stages doubled to 16 teams. It should be 32 but effects are evident only two years in. And in the context of the nowadays packed football calendar, effects will be entrenched. The choice between tournaments will become zero-sum for footballers.

Take South Africa. Only a decade ago it was unthinkable that continental achievement would be listed among fans’ overbearing demands. Now it’s one to check off. Roger de Sa, and his accomplishments with Orlando Pirates, deserves proper mention for paving the way. As does the consistency of Pitso Mosimane’s Sundowns.

More countries are getting starry-eyed about a Champions League or Confederation Cup group-stage spot. CAF should figure that this is the platform for Africa-based players. Not three weeks of CHAN. For the regional bodies and their cups, it calls on them to reconsider the privilege of their tournaments and general position in African football. In 2018, Africa was waxing lyrical about how Township Rollers pass the ball.

This is a football club from Botswana, all respect given. Less endowed clubs from Swaziland, Uganda, and Kenya were others who broke a glass ceiling with the change.

Can regional federations remain relevant?

It’s clear that their previous role has been encroached upon, likely irreversibly. Organizing tournaments will not be enough. Regional federations must address the concern about the ways in which they will fulfill the needs of African football going forward. What are the primary needs? The continent needs to improve infrastructure and emphasize grassroots football.

In particular, the latter is a behind-the-scenes affair and won’t always score political points. No wonder much of Africa has grown too comfortable with “outsourcing” this aspect of the game. West Africans hardly fight back against the network of scouts getting pickings of teenage talent. It’s even more worrisome to hear sentiments from countries like Egypt and Tunisia advocating for that kind of talent export. Coaching is hardly touched. When will Africa be embarrassed by their world cup coach not being able to sing along the national anthem? It’s more frightening when you realize there is no other continent that will take in African coaches.

What can regional federations offer with respect to this? They will not be in a position to finance these without their tournaments doing well. I don’t want to pass verdict on the position in the hierarchy these competitions take for broadcasters. Perhaps, regional federations will have to resort to experimental solutions to have enough money to get a say at the table. Grassroots development is the domain of country federations, with string-attached funding from CAF and FIFA, after all. One idea being explored half-heartedly by, FIFA President, Infantino is selling off an expanded club world cup for a time for $25 billion.

It would be a big win if CECAFA, WAFU, and others can pull it off. There are still questions as to whether African football is as lucrative an endeavor for private investment or spending. Football is a now business, or worse; entertainment. Africa does not show it’s living in the times. It’s not uncommon for online gatekeepers to appeal to “Africaness” to guilt Africans to watch their own. Besides this tactic, Africa looks to public spending to prop itself.

This is another area that requires rethink, especially with regards to infrastructure. And regional federations are out of their depth here, unless they can propose new solutions. Should poor countries build multiple stadia for what is essentially a private party for CAF or FIFA? Can this be defended when it comes at the expense of roads for smallholder farmers, for instance?

It’s a safe bet to claim that African football will barely advance without requisite infrastructure. One can peek at the sophisticated training facilities Europeans enjoy just to get a sense of the gap between. Attainable, one can check out what Asia pulled off to effectively overtake Africa. No regional federation has a roadmap, whatsoever, for its region on football infrastructure development.

Were these regional bodies an umbrella or, simply, middlemen to seat countries on opposite sides of a table? Without reinvention, they don’t look to offer much to African football future. One alternative for them is to work closely with the smaller member states. These are still relevant as FIFA votes are incredibly done by one-member-one-vote basis, nothing else considered. For the larger countries, at best, they can step in junior partner roles. If regional federations can figure out how to reduce the burden on their national counterparts, they can continue to be part of the ride.