Can new competition improve club game on continent?

Can new competition improve club game on continent?
Wydad Casablanca players celebrate winning the African Champions League title

The African Champions League won by Wydad Casablanca last season could be marginalized by the new Africa Super League

Morocco may have broken through barriers to African football with their historic World Cup semi-finals, but club sport on the continent still lags far behind European standards.

So Patrice Motsepe, President of the Confederation of African Football (Caf), is hoping that the launch of the Africa Super League next year will change that.

The South African described the new competition as “one of the most exciting developments in the history of African football” as he unveiled the latest plans in Tanzania in August.

Supported by the head of world football’s governing body, Fifa President Gianni Infantino, Motsepe stressed that it was all about pumping more money into club football in Africa, with $100m in prize money and $11.5m for winners.

The tournament was due to start in August 2023, with 24 clubs from 16 countries set to take part, although recent reports suggest there may now be just eight teams left.

As many as there are in a format that could well follow the European Champions League, the plan is to culminate in a “Super Bowl-like” final in May 2024.

The Africa Super League is set to be played alongside the existing African Champions League, which features 16 teams in the group stage but has been dominated by North African teams for the past decade.

Caf pledges a huge total investment of US$200m not only for the participating clubs but also for the development of women’s football and youth academies across its 54 member countries.

To be too good to be true? Some people think like that.

“Opaque” club selection

“We weren’t consulted once,” said John Comitis, chairman and owner of Cape Town City FC, which plays in the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL).

The former striker has been involved in African football for almost 40 years and is not happy with what he calls the “opaque selection process” of clubs for the new Super League.

Comitis says he received a few lists of the clubs that would be included and believes the chosen ones are “politically positioned clubs, owned by certain wealthy individuals or by the state”.

State ownership of football clubs is still widespread across Africa, although this is not the case in South Africa itself.

Comitis’ biggest concern is the impact the new continental competition could have on PSL, which he describes as “very efficient and professional” in terms of funding and broadcasting rights.

“Africa’s infrastructure nightmare is unprecedented,” he says, highlighting how his team traveled to DR Congo for a game and couldn’t make the return trip in less than five days, calling the cost of the trip “outrageous”.

In this context, Comitis believes that it will be almost impossible to fit Super League matches into the existing schedule and that domestic leagues will undoubtedly suffer and potentially lose broadcast funds if the top clubs see B teams in use national games.

“Ultimately we are protecting our businesses and South African football,” he concludes.

Some might call that sour grapes, as Comitis has made it clear that his team were not among the chosen 24 that were once earmarked for the Super League.

Where the proposed $200 million prize money and development fund will come from is still unclear, particularly after Caf reported a loss of over $40 million in its most recent audited financial statements, although Motsepe has consistently been of significant interest from the commercial sector speaks.

A Caf spokesman said Motsepe, who was elected Caf boss in March 2021, has “the best interests of African football at heart”.

By now there is no doubt that mining billionaire Motsepe, as the owner of reigning South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns, has invested much of his personal fortune in the game.

Make African game more competitive

Mamelodi Sundowns lift the African Champions League trophy in 2016

Motsepe-owned Mamelodi Sundowns were the last club from outside North Africa to win the African Champions League when they beat Egypt’s Zamalek in 2016

Should they actually take place, the sums would make the African Super League more valuable than the Africa Cup of Nations, which has always attracted international attention and culminated in a final which saw then-Liverpool team-mates and global icons Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were played against each other when Senegal defeated Egypt in February.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a Nigerian football journalist, believes that the concept for the new club competition was not conceived in Africa but was in fact Infantino’s brainchild.

“Outside of Africa, there is a belief that Africans need to be treated like babies. I find that highly insulting,” Obayiuwana said.

Like Comitis, Obayiuwana fears the football calendar will become way too crowded.

Should 24 teams take part, the Africa Super League would span 24 matchdays over a season – a lot to fit alongside domestic campaigns, which span around 38 weeks, and commitments in the African Champions League.

Add to this the logistics of additional travel across the continent, which is a challenge in itself, and the magnitude of the task is clear.

“You can imagine the pressure on the players,” added Obayiuwana.

home support

According to Caf, the details of the Africa Super League are still being ironed out, but despite much criticism and unanswered questions, the new competition has its notable backers.

South Africa’s record goalscorer Benni McCarthy has played in Africa and Europe, won the European Champions League with Jose Mourinhos Porto in 2004 and is now first-team manager at Manchester United, having coached in his home country Cape Town and AmaZulu.

He believes the new Super League will offer clubs more earning opportunities and a better platform for players, which could be transformative.

“I would like to see an African player compete against the best players in the world because it’s been too long since an African won the Ballon d’Or,” said the 45-year-old, referring to the team’s victory Liberian’s George Weah in 1995.

“African football is brilliant but it’s not on the same level as European football. The speed and the technical side are different than what players are used to in Africa.

“I think the Super League will remove that barrier by making African football more competitive.”

Wydad Casablanca fans ahead of the African Champions League final against Al Ahly in May

Wydad Casablanca fans packed the Stade Mohammed V for the African Champions League final against Al Ahly in May, but the competition are struggling for televised exposure across Africa

That’s the hope, but in reality, if the new Africa Super League is to have any fighting chance of succeeding, it needs to attract television money, which is the lifeblood of football in Europe and has helped make the English Premier League the most financially successful league in the world.

But, as Obayiuwana points out, African broadcasters spend more money on the European game than on African football – arguing that the product does not deserve their investment.

So how do you solve this chicken and egg situation? Without TV money and sponsorship, it will be difficult to further develop the quality of the football shown.

Obayiuwana believes Caf should first build local leagues, promote them on the continent and brand them.

Then, similar to the Champions League in Europe, the fans would “get to know the players and clubs and be invested in them, which is not the case in Africa”.

It starts with people actually being able to watch games across the continent, which is a real problem in many countries.

“It’s easier for me to watch the Europa League in Lagos than a game between Esperance and Raja Casablanca in the African Champions League,” said the Nigerian.

Despite the progress made by African teams at the World Cup, improving club play could prove to be a bigger challenge for Motsepe.

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