FIFA appointment shakes up African football

FIFA’s plan to clean up African football.


For some, the appointment of Fatma Samoura as “FIFA general delegate for Africa” offers the chance to resolve the controversies surrounding the Confederation of African Football (CAF), but for others it represents a hostile move, as David Thomas reports.

Just two minutes into the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, Algeria’s Baghdad Bounedjah skipped inside his defender and drove in a speculative shot from 25 yards. The hopeful effort took a screwball deflection off Senegal defender Salif Sané, pitching high into the night sky and over stranded goalkeeper Alfred Gomis. That moment of freak drama settled an attritional contest that capped off a tournament of exciting play.

Yet while Egypt 2019 provided a platform for Africa’s global stars, off the pitch the game has been brought low by controversy at the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the sport’s frequently dysfunctional governing body.

In June, Ahmad Ahmad, the Malagasy president of CAF, was questioned by French authorities as part of a probe into “corruption, breach of trust and forgery” around a sportswear deal, although he was neither detained nor charged and denies the wrongdoing.

The incident followed a separate damaging dispute over the hosting of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Last November Cameroon was stripped of the right to host the 2019 instalment owing to slow preparations, but was instead offered the right to host the 2021 tournament, sparking legal action from Côte d’Ivoire, who will see its own tournament pushed back to 2023.

In another move that raised eyebrows, CAF took the unprecedented decision to order a replay of the second leg of the CAF Champions League final following a failure of the video assistant referee (VAR) system.

In June, FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, decided it had seen enough. The organisation installed its secretary general Fatma Samoura in the new role of “FIFA general delegate for Africa” for an initial six months from 1 August, handing the Senegalese a wide-ranging mandate to “oversee the operational management of CAF”, including governance and administrative procedures, and to “ensure the efficient and professional organisation of all CAF competitions”.

The two organisations will conduct a “full forensic audit” of CAF as soon as possible and work to implement an 11-point roadmap signed in July.

For fans and football professionals long exasperated with CAF, the appointment of Samoura offers a chance to move on from wearying controversy. Others resist the appointment, seeing it as an unprecedented move by FIFA to muscle in on the turf of a continental association, or even an attempt by CAF’s leadership to evade scrutiny.

“I don’t see FIFA sending someone to Kuala Lumpur to sit down there and say, listen, you are too incompetent to run your game, I’m sending a governor to handle it,” says Emmanuel Maradas, a former FIFA official and ex-editor of African Soccer.

“They will never accept it, ever. You lose the independence of the institution. CAF will never negotiate in a strong position with FIFA if they succeed in doing so.”

Conflict veteran

Yet the woman who will be navigating this delicate terrain has extensive experience of operating in unforgiving African bureaucracies. In a 21-year career at the United Nations, 56-year old Fatma Samoura served as country representative or deputy humanitarian coordinator in seven countries: Djibouti, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Niger, Madagascar and Nigeria.

In June 2016, Samoura made the surprising switch to football administration, becoming the first female secretary general of the world governing body. While some commentators mutter that she lacks experience in soccer, wielding her earlier experience could be crucial to reforming a change-resistant organisation.

FIFA’s statement announcing Samoura’s appointment hints at the diplomatic balance that she must strike, insisting that Samoura and her team will “work in a spirit of partnership with President Ahmad and his team in several areas” and highlighting the role of Ahmad in seeking FIFA’s expertise to accelerate the reform process. The renewal of Samoura’s six-month term will be dependent on the agreement of both organisations. 

“There’s a strong potential, with any organisation, that any external or new change agent tasked with improving governance and oversight will face some type of adversity and some challenges,” says Dale Sheehan, director of capacity building and education in the Sport Integrity Unit at the International Centre for Sport Security.

“Clearly there has to be a strong roadmap to success and with that comes communication and trust. What’s essential is outreach and partnership, not trying to impose change on someone, but to work together and realise you can’t do it in an arbitrary fashion. That said there’s going to be some resistors… some people like the status quo and don’t want to change.”

Key to the process will be the forensic audit, the conclusions of which could help create a roadmap for future reform at an organisation long dogged by corruption concerns.

“An audit gives you a starting point… its open and transparent and lays out a roadmap. It gives the body coming in the power to say here’s some things that were identified, let’s work together to try and achieve this,” says Sheehan, who previously worked at Interpol with FIFA to combat match fixing in football.

Fix yourself

While critics say the move amounts to executive overreach from FIFA, there remains a widespread feeling that CAF has passed over opportunities to reform itself. Ahmad was reported in March to FIFA’s ethics committee for alleged corruption and harassment by CAF general secretary Amr Fahmy, who was then fired, according to Reuters. The ethics committee investigation is still ongoing. 

In July, Hasan Bility, a Liberian CAF executive committee member for the last two years, released a media statement saying that he would ask the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport to declare invalid Samoura’s appointment. Instead of the “poorly conceptualised” agreement, he said that Ahmad must resign.

In the same week, Bility was himself banned from the game for 10 years by FIFA’s Ethics Committee following an investigation into the finances of the Liberian Football Association. FIFA said that Bility was “guilty of having misappropriated FIFA funds as well as having received benefits and found himself in situations of conflict of interest, in violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics.”

While Maradas expresses disquiet over the appointment of Samoura, he points to the failure of leadership to solve CAF’s problems.

“If they are mature enough and have a competent leadership they will fight back and tell FIFA we don’t need this, we will find a way of solving our own problems. But can Ahmad do that? Is he strong enough? I really don’t know.”

CAF, he says, must reform itself.

“There are people there who need to be removed and allow competent people to get in and solve things. If CAF are brave enough they will say OK, we have an issue here, we can change ourselves and reinvent things. CAF is not a young institution, it was set up in 1957. If in 62 years you are incapable of solving your own problems, you are a failed person in life.” 

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