Could football finally become big business in Africa?

Keeping African football stars playing in the continent's national leagues is a challenge that the governing body the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is starting to confront.


Football is undoubtedly Africa’s most popular sport. Millions tune in every week to watch the stars of the world’s biggest clubs compete. It is difficult to find an office, restaurant or bar on the continent that is not broadcasting some sort of football game at any given time. Around 20m African viewers watched the Uefa Champions League final in May 2015.

Yet Africa’s national leagues are far behind those of Europe in terms of development. From television rights and merchandise to sponsorship, there are many opportunities for what could become a billion-dollar sport for Africa.

Prospects for this growing industry are on the up after a successful 2010 Fifa World Cup held in South Africa and the more recent eight-year sponsorship deal between oil and gas company Total and the Confederation of African Football (CAF). If the football industry can overcome poor governance issues, stem the migration of talented players and reignite interest in domestic leagues, the sport can play a significant role in driving Africa’s economic and social development.

“Muscle drain”

There is no lack of footballing talent from the continent. From Liberia’s George Weah, to Côte D’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba and Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – to name just a few – African footballers have been lighting up the global stage for decades. 

Yet the migration of gifted African footballers to Europe is hampering interest and development in Africa’s leagues. “Muscle Drain” – where top players leave Africa for more developed leagues – has been long discussed, with BBC News running an article as far back as 2000 entitled “Is Europe stealing Africa’s best players?”, but little progress has been made in combating the problem.

African footballers have a major presence in European leagues, with the 2010 Demographic Study of Footballers in Europe finding that 571 players from Africa were employed by 528 clubs of 36 top division leagues of Uefa member countries, an average of more than one per club. Top-level clubs and agents are constantly on the lookout for skilled young African footballers that have the potential to become world-class stars.

Building a successful football industry in Africa will prove difficult if the top performers are all playing abroad, so the continuing importance of investing in training academies, like the West African Football Academy, is paramount. Homegrown coaches are also rare across the continent, with quality coaching facilities similarly hard to find.

Up-and-coming African players are more likely to stay on the continent if there are opportunities for them and the support system required to enhance their skills is strong, but until Fifa introduces more stringent regulations on the selling of young players not much can be expected to change.

Weak governance

Issues around corruption and political interference in football exist everywhere, but they are particularly widespread in African football. A number of countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Chad, have been suspended by Fifa under their “no interference” rules, highlighting the pervasive nature of this encroachment.

“Football in Africa has faced numerous challenges in recent years and has faced various allegations of corruption and abuses of power within its governance structures, as well as cases of match-fixing and illegal trafficking of players being reported across the continent,” says Jake Marsh, a senior sport integrity manager at the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS).

These problems are not only damaging to the perception of the game, but they can have a real impact on the success of players on the field. “The dispute between the Ghanaian FA and its players about unpaid appearance fees at the 2014 Fifa World Cup is just one example of how administrative problems could affect player performances,” explains Marsh.

While it is possible to deal with the institutional obstacles, it will not be an easy process. “For African sport and football to progress, greater transparency and accountability is crucial and must be introduced and incentivised by national federations, law enforcement agencies and governments. This will be a challenge and will require strong, selfless and collaborative leadership at all levels and across all countries in African sport,” adds Marsh.


Mike Makaab, South Africa’s first Fifa-licensed football agent and chief executive of sports agency Prosport International, believes gaining major sponsors will be extremely important in helping drive growth in African football, but notes that the landscape of sports sponsorship has changed dramatically in the past few years.

“Corporates are more focused on a tangible return on their investment and the impact that the ‘brand alignment’ has on the sponsor reaching its target market – in actual fact not reaching, but almost physically touching its target market through intelligent leveraging and activations. Football cannot survive without sponsorships and so it must ensure that the sponsor’s rights are properly catered for. A satisfied sponsor invariably returns for more,” explains Makaab.

The Total and CAF sponsorship agreement is a key milestone, as it represents not only a major financial infusion but shows the confidence international businesses are placing in football in Africa. PwC estimated that revenues from global sports sponsorships reached more than $45bn last year. Africa may currently account for less than $2bn of the market, with the majority coming out of South Africa, but this could soon change if African leagues are able to attract more high-quality players and therefore bolster interest from African supporters.

Recent developments indicate that optimism in the industry may be well placed. The 2010 South African World Cup was estimated to have generated a $5bn economic impact and China paid for the construction of four Angolan stadiums before the 2010 African Cup of Nations as part of an aid package.

While this does show that not all costs to improve football facilities have to be borne by the host country, the stadiums are massively underused due to mismanagement. Short-term financial benefits should not be put before the goal of creating a functioning industry in the long-term. In order for African football to become a major player on the global stage further investment must be made in stadiums across the continent, with academies needing to ensure they are training the next generation of Africa’s footballers, not simply exporting them overseas.

“I think we have seen over many decades how sport, but on this continent football in particular, consistently has the ability to unite different cultures and to bring joy and hope to all of those who participate. If we can take this phenomena and harness the support that football commands throughout the continent, then the industry can be one of the most powerful vehicles for the development of the peoples of this wonderfully diverse continent,” adds Makaab.

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