Football: When will Africa cash in?

With domestic leagues underfunded and poorly attended and a disappointing performance in the 2018 World Cup, African football is failing to reach its vast potential. African Business looks for the solutions. As the referee’s whistle rang out in the Samara arena, Senegal’s players fell to their knees in despair. Disappointment etched on their faces, the men in green consoled each […]


With domestic leagues underfunded and poorly attended and a disappointing performance in the 2018 World Cup, African football is failing to reach its vast potential. African Business looks for the solutions.

Athe referee’s whistle rang out in the Samara arena, Senegal’s players fell to their knees in despair. Disappointment etched on their faces, the men in green consoled each other amid the agony of a World Cup elimination decided on yellow cards following their 1-0 defeat to Colombia. Little more than a fortnight into Russia 2018, Senegal’s untimely exit snuffed out the last remaining chance of an African team advancing from the group stage. Despite feverish excitement and genuine pre-tournament optimism, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia crashed out one by one, combining to deliver Africa’s worst World Cup performance since 1982.  

For disappointed fans from Dakar to Cairo, there was to be no repeat of the heroics of Ghana’s Black Stars of 2010 or the brave Cameroonians of 1990. Far from lightning up the tournament with their flair and talent, global stars Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané departed Russia to little fanfare. Perhaps inevitably, the collective failure of Africa’s World Cup qualifiers delivered a blow to the continent’s image of itself as the next powerhouse of world football. Decades after Pelé’s prediction that Africa would win the World Cup by 2000, the optimism of the great Brazilian looks ever more misguided.  

And yet despite the bitter disappointment of Russia 2018, African football ought to be immeasurably stronger than at any point in history. Flush with millions of dollars in FIFA revenues from the commercial bonanza of the World Cup, Africa’s national football federations have a chance to move on from decades of chaotic maladministration and underfunding. In contrast to the shambolic preparations of the past, Africa’s World Cup qualifiers enjoyed a largely harmonious run-up to Russia, free of the player strikes and logistical difficulties that dogged previous squads. 

Meanwhile, thousands of African footballers ply their trades in the elite leagues of Europe, gaining access to the kind of professional coaching and conditioning that their predecessors could only have dreamed of. An endless stream of young African players sign development contracts at clubs from Chelsea to Barcelona, their progress followed by hundreds of millions of African supporters hooked to the weekly drama of European club football.  

But despite the vast potential, a number of factors conspire to hold back the successful development of the game.  Corruption remains rife, with FIFA’s laissez-faire dispersal of revenues acting too often as a magnet for the self-interested. Revenues are siphoned off by administrators rather than being used to upgrade facilities, while domestic leagues are underfunded, poorly attended and home to technically inferior players.  

“When you have money, you have mismanagement, corruption, a lack of seriousness, and a lack of planning,” says Emmanuel Maradas, a former FIFA official and ex-editor of African Soccer. “Our administrations today are running on a day-to-day basis. There is no blueprint for the longer term. If you go to the English or Japanese Football Association, they will give you a five-year plan. If you go to the African federations and ask what sort of plan they have for the next World Cup they will say wait and see. It shows that we lack professionalism – the downfall of African football is the administration.” 

While success at national tournaments is a crude yardstick by which to measure national footballing development, Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics, says that it is clear that African nations need serious reform if they are to compete.  

“The really big issue is that African nations have not really been making progress since 1990. That’s a much more concerning issue. There’s no trend here for African nations to do better and it’s not only in the World Cup… there’s been a stagnation in performance of national teams in Africa for the last 30 years really, at least 20 years. It would be a very brave person that would say that an African nation will win the World Cup by 2040.” 

Heroic failure 

On a stomach-churning 2010 evening in Johannesburg, thousands of Ghanaian supporters streamed into Soccer City for what was to become one of the famous nights in the history of African football. Carrying the hopes of a continent on their shoulders, Ghana’s Black Stars came agonisingly close to reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, denied only by the hand of Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez and a cruel penalty shootout. Few among those present could feel anything but optimism for the future despite the pain of defeat. 

Fast forward to 2018 and the government of Ghana, whose team was notably absent from Russia 2018, is taking steps to dissolve the Ghana Football Association (GFA) after a TV documentary showed its president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, allegedly accepting a cash gift of $65,000. Nyantakyi claims that he was merely being paid expenses and that a lesser sum was involved, but has resigned from his posts at the national association, FIFA and the Confederation of African Football. The government said it was acting against the “apparent rot” at the GFA, which until now had a reputation for strong and honest administration.

For long-term watchers of African soccer, the collapse of the Ghana Football Association parallels the administrative chaos that mars countries across the continent. Throughout Africa, competent football associations have been seen as the exception rather than the rule. Maradas says that many African federations are still dominated by “civil servants” with little knowledge of the game who treat FIFA’s largesse as a piggy bank.  

“People start sharing the money around instead of using it to develop football. It’s very difficult to get rid of them because they run the place like a mafia – they see it as a golden opportunity to prepare for their retirement.” 

Under the controversial reigns of former FIFA presidents Sepp Blatter and João Havelange, African nations became reliable vote-bankers at FIFA conferences after receiving pledges of expanded financial assistance. While Blatter, credited with bringing the World Cup to South Africa, was often to be found gleefully ribbon-cutting new projects on the continent, the true impact of his “no questions asked” financial support remains obscure. A newspaper investigation found that Blatter-era projects in Zambia had quickly fallen into disrepair, while the legacy of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup is often written off as amounting to little more than a few white elephant stadiums.  

Wiebe Boer, chief executive of energy investment fund All On and author of A Story of Heroes and Epics: The History of Football in Nigeria, says that the past few years have proved a mixed blessing for African football, with strides made in commercialisation and professionalism but an ongoing lack of accountability. 

“After years in the wilderness now you see the Nigeria Football Federation signing up a sponsor almost every week. There’s a lot more confidence in their ability to organise and manage the team well… it does appear that there is better organisation,” he explains. “With the number of sponsors, the friendlies that they were able to set up, and the coaching they have now, the continuity, it does seem like there’s a lot of improvement. There’s tons of money going to the Nigeria Football Federation through sponsorships but I can’t say how well it’s being used… with all this money going in you don’t any see further effort to develop the game from the grassroots and invest there.” 

The inability of many federations to account for their spending and develop a comprehensive plan for grassroots football significantly holds back the development of Africa’s listless domestic leagues. Well-resourced academies funded by Europe’s elite clubs cream off the best talent at a young age before they have a chance to benefit local professional clubs. Meanwhile, talented individuals rejected by Europe’s top clubs find themselves with few development opportunities at home and drift from the professional game. With their roots in churches or local government, many African clubs lack the commercial nous and financial resources to be able to nurture, promote and commercially exploit the talent on their doorsteps. The result is tiny crowds and limited TV audiences, with African fans far more interested in the English Premier League than domestic football.

“It’s time for them to develop locally, they need proper leagues, they have to produce players week in week out in the domestic leagues, and they must be competitive,” says Maradas.  

Boer says that tackling this problem will offer compelling commercial opportunities for those bold enough to seize the initiative. African entrepreneurs like Aliko Dangote should set their sights on rejuvenating domestic clubs rather than dream of owning Premier League giants like Arsenal, he suggests.  

“If you look at Lagos, a city of up to 20m, it doesn’t have a meaningful Nigerian Premier League team. There could be a huge opportunity for a team in developing players, selling them to European clubs, making sure contracts are such that they get sell-on clauses. The whole business around matches, stadiums and the income from that and how it can regenerate run-down parts of cities – there’s really nothing happening in that space.” 

For that to happen to any meaningful extent, Szymanski says that African economies must benefit from broader growth. Successful sports teams have been proven to develop in educated and healthy countries, and a wealthy population with higher levels of disposable income is much likelier to support the commercial environment that clubs require to expand. Indeed, some African nations may never have the economic potential to become leading football nations.  

“The businesses that sponsor sports are businesses that sell large numbers of consumer goods – car companies, beer producers, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. Whilst African countries struggle to develop economically, there isn’t the sponsorship money because there aren’t the consumer sales. As the economy grows, sponsorship grows, so naturally the root of the problem is growth and how to foster general economic growth,” says Szymanski. 

Converging with the Europeans 

And yet despite Africa’s economic emergence since the 1990s – the continent grew at an average rate of 5.4% in the decade from 2000 and 3.3% from 2010 until 2015 – the progress of its national teams has stalled, according to a December 2017 paper for the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality by Szymanski and Melanie Krause of Hamburg University.   

They offer the theory that national teams “converge” over time in the same way as developing economies catch up with developed economies. But while Africa has enjoyed periods of improvement in line with this theory, convergence towards the performance of the elite nations has stalled over the last decade and may actually be going into reverse. As with the “middle income trap” experienced by developing economies, sustained improvements become harder following an initial period of rapid improvement, and are subsequently dependent on youth development and the crafting of innovative styles of football. 

Boer argues that while African countries have simply focused on getting basic tournament organisation right, elite nations have been making immense strides in the technical and scientific aspects of the game. Another compelling reason for Africa’s stalling convergence may be the continent’s relative isolation from football’s international networks. While a European minnow like Iceland has witnessed stunning improvement through regular clashes with top UEFA peers, small African nations rarely have a chance to better themselves through competition against the world’s best. Even African heavyweights Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Africa Cup of Nations champions Cameroon failed to qualify for Russia 2018. As with the footballing side, commercial operations could also be improved by a more robust engagement with sophisticated European networks.  

“Could there be collaboration with the Premier League where an [English] club adopts a Nigerian club and has some kind of exchange relationship both in terms of coaching and technical staff, and even down to the management of stadiums and merchandise, in exchange for the most talented players? There is no clear link between these clubs and the better-known teams in Europe,” says Boer. 

Perhaps the most promising way of strengthening and exploiting both the commercial and footballing networks between Africa and Europe lies with the thousands of talented African footballers already performing in elite European competition. Combining access to significant fortunes from their careers with genuine footballing talent and an interest in helping their home countries develop, ex-players could hold the key to the rapid improvement of domestic football.  

“Many development economists talk about ‘feet drain’ – [the theory that] footballers going to Europe undermines the quality of football in Africa and holds it back. I don’t buy that at all,” says Szymanski. “Exposure to the European networks is only a positive thing. It enables talented African footballers to adopt best practices. The problem is it’s not easy for talented footballers who want to come back and give back because of the corruption. There have been examples of African footballers going back and starting academies but its proved tough. Rather than stop African footballers going to Europe with quotas, I’d encourage them to go and help them to come back. If FIFA were truly progressive they’d be partnering with players and encouraging them to bring back expertise.” 

To encourage old players to return to their birthplace and risk their own capital and reputation, the new leadership of FIFA president Gianni Infantino may have to reassess how and to whom it distributes revenues on the continent. “Infantino wants to do things his way, which is yes we will give you the money, but you tell us what you need and we will give you money according to your needs,” says Maradas.  

Boer agrees that FIFA’s attitude to the continent is changing. Long seen as a vote-winner during FIFA leadership contests, the continent is now being seen as a crucial future driver of revenues and FIFA may be prepared to think in a more progressive manner about African football. “It’s moved beyond ‘lets just buy their votes’. It’s that Africa has over a billion people and is growing fast and there’s a lot of talent there. At the end of the day, FIFA will generate revenues from an African continent where football is thriving. It’s about the long-term development of the game and what that means to FIFA.”

As for what that means for Africa’s chances at future World Cups, the jury remains out. But Szymanski argues that Iceland provides a perfect example to follow. “This tiny nation can qualify for the Euros, humiliate England and make it to the World Cup. They just made facilities available to every person. Every single citizen can play. But ultimately you need to support much larger participation than is being achieved at the moment. If there were any African nation that could do that, the potential would be huge.”

David Thomas

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