From an Uphill Battle to a Clear Path: It’s Time for CAF to Build the Structure of Women’s Football in Africa

It is no secret that women’s football across the world has always been a fighter. It has had to overcome roadblocks to simply exist and is now leading a fight to thrive amidst negligence from governing bodies and the worldwide football community. Yet, it’s here and it is growing and defying limitations.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 demonstrated that growth, with over 1.12 billion fans from across the globe tuning in to its matches at various stages. It was the biggest edition of the tournament yet; a natural progression that still surprised many fans and pundits around the world. So much so that many rushed to call it a “turning point” and a “new era” for women’s football. Truth or theatrics? Only time will tell.

There is no doubt that 2019 has ushered some progress, albeit slower for African teams than most. For starters, having two teams from the continent, Cameroon and Nigeria, reach the round of 16 of the World Cup was in itself a feat worthy of celebration. But the fact that this achievement – and the entire Women’s World Cup – was eclipsed in Africa by the Men’s African Cup of Nations was deeply symbolic of what women’s football in the continent has endured.

Just as the Women’s World Cup was an afterthought to the Men’s African Cup of Nations, women’s football has long been an afterthought to men’s football in the eyes of African governing bodies. For many nations, it has been a box to tick at best. Women’s teams have had to wait for funding and support to trickle down for them to be able to compete, many even relying on donations and individual efforts to survive.

Even when it comes to the nations that represented Africa in the Women’s World Cup, Cameroon, Nigeria, and South Africa, support from within the continent has not been optimal. Nigeria in particular, who have sat comfortably on the throne of international women’s football in Africa for years, having won 11 out of 13 editions of the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON), continue to have their share of struggles with their federation.

Last year, immediately after their exit from the World Cup, the Nigerian players had to stage a sit-in to demand their bonuses from the NFF. As of October 2019, three months after the World Cup, five players came forward saying that they still had not been paid the full amount that they were owed by the federation. And this wasn’t the first time this happens either. In 2016, the players had to stage a similar protest after winning the AWCON until their bonuses were paid.

And although the men’s national team in Nigeria faced a similar issue with the NFF last year, the core issues within women’s football in Africa go beyond delayed payments – which have become all too common for women’s teams. The wage and prize money gap between men and women’s football in the continent remains staggering, but this problem itself is a product of many other underlying issues within the footballing system in Africa. In Nigeria, the players of the women’s national team, arguably the best international African side, earn a maximum of $3,000 in bonuses per match, while the men’s team make between $5,000 and $10,000 in bonuses per match.

In 2019, it was announced that South Africa’s Banyana Banyana would become the first women’s team in Africa to earn equal pay to that of the men’s team during the World Cup, after earning $300 to the $4,000 earned by Bafana Bafana for years. This was a much-awaited step, but South Africa still remains ahead of the rest of the continent when it comes to the women’s game and there’s a reason for that. The women’s game in South Africa has been able to find a path to growth partly due to backing from the South African Football Association (particularly female leadership within the Association) and financial support from prime sponsor Sasol, who have been part of the women’s league and various development projects since 2009.

The result is dominance within COSAFA for more than a decade, and a strong Banyana Banyana team that proudly represented their nation on the world’s biggest stage. In fact, among the three African nations in the FIFA WWC, Banyana Banyana had the greatest number of players that actually play for local clubs. While Nigeria and Cameroon had only seven players that play in the local league, South Africa boasted fifteen local players including team Captain Janine Van Wyk, who played for JVW at the time, the club she founded to promote women’s football in South Africa.

And while this signals positive progress for South Africa, the case is not the same across the continent. Within the whole of Africa, less than 30 fully-functional women’s football leagues exist, and there are only three top tier regional championships for national teams to compete in besides the AWCON (namely COSAFA, UNIFFAC, and WAFU). Some teams end up playing less than 5 matches a year due to the lack of opportunities and lack of funds to support regular training camps. Most women’s national teams thrive purely on talent and sometimes, donations from fans. Even when it comes to talent, which Africa has no shortage of, the lack of proper football structures means many players have one of two options: find the opportunity to play for a team abroad in one of the more well-established leagues in Europe, North America, or East Asia, or take up a second job in order to sustain their football careers.

Farther North, the status of women’s football is even less fortunate. While clubs and national teams from the likes of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt form a formidable force in the men’s game, women’s football in the region is stagnant in comparison. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s National Teams dropped out of FIFA’s rankings due to inactivity, and Morocco and Algeria rank 81st and 84th respectively. The last UNAF women’s tournament was held in 2009 and leagues in the region get little or no support from the local football federations, who view women’s football as extracurricular. Culturally, many even view it as unnecessary, if not frowned upon.

Sarah Essam became the first Egyptian woman to play in England

Last year, ahead of the Women’s World Cup and AFCON, Sarah Essam made headlines as the torch bearer for women’s football in Egypt. The 20-year-old Stoke City player is one of the very few Egyptian female players to achieve club success abroad, if not the first. Essam often reiterates the need for support for the women’s game in Egypt, but beyond praises of her achievements and a few grassroots projects here and there, the Egyptian Football Association has not taken any real steps to improve the game for Essam and her teammates. This is evident in the fact that the Egyptian National Team remains out of FIFA’s rankings.

And the root of the problem is not unique to Africa; women’s football is constantly stuck in a catch-22. The catch claims that to develop the women’s game, you need to have funds, but to obtain the funds (from sponsorship, sales, views, etc), you need to have a well-structured game that appeals to stakeholders. And for decades, “there are no funds” has been the issue that no governing body wanted to dig deep enough to find a solution for. Many simply do not think the women’s game would be worth the time or investment. At least, until recently. If 2019 has proven anything, it is that women’s football can be just as profitable as men’s if given the same level of care. And not only did the Women’s World Cup achieve incredible viewership figures, but women’s football matches across Europe and North American have been attracting record crowds.

Investing in the women’s game has been proven to pay off. It is a simple notion, but it does require effort and commitment from the leaders of the sport. I, for one, certainly do not expect there to be a switch to turn on the women’s game in Africa to its full capacity. That being said, the foundations need to be established on a continental level, and CAF needs to kickstart this process with clear regulations and plans for the women’s game. Last November, CAF held its first Women’s Football Taskforce Workshop with the aim of creating a strong framework for Women’s Football in the continent. Later on, it was announced that the Executive Committee had approved CAF’s newly proposed women’s football strategy. The contents of which are not yet available to the public, but the overall document is said to be based on FIFA’s five-pillared global Women’s Football Strategy that was first introduced in 2018.

It was also rumored towards the end of 2019 that CAF is reviewing a proposal to established a Women’s Champions League, a move that could do a lot to boost the status of Women’s Football in Africa. In fact, this simple rumor has already prompted some federations to ramp up their women’s football development initiatives. The Federation of Uganda Football Associations responded to the claim by saying that they will work on improving the standards of competition and professionalism within the women’s game in Uganda to be ready to participate in the continental competition. However, no official announcements have been made by CAF as of yet regarding its establishment.

For women’s football to grow and unlock its potential, there need to be more opportunities for female players to compete. And once competitions and regulations are established, the fans and the sponsors will undoubtedly follow. We are past the point of questioning whether women’s football has any appeal because it has proven time and again that it does. And with three teams representing the continent and facing the world’s best at the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year, there is no question that Africa has the talent and the capacity to go far.

Steps have certainly been made in the right direction, and circumstances have been slowly but surely improving for female footballers in the continent, albeit not everywhere and not as much as needed. Now is the right time for CAF and its member associations to demonstrate serious commitment to improving professionalism across the board and creating a healthy environment for female talents to develop and thrive within the continent. And with AWCON 2020 fast approaching, CAF has a great opportunity to promote and show support for women’s football throughout the year.