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CAF Club Football — Desperate Need of Reform
Making his debut for King Fut, Kenya-based African football writer Robert Malit tackles some of the ongoing issues surrounding CAF club football, and the much-needed reform to raise the competitions’ standards.
Much has been said about what needs to be done to help African football break the glass ceiling. A recurring theme has been to prioritize the development of football within the continent rather than flood Europe with African players. The CHAN tournament was formed with this in mind. I am among those who are skeptical of the merits of this competition. Don’t we already have the platforms for African-based players to showcase their talents? Instead of implying that African-based players are second rate, resources must be directed to where they are truly needed – the CAF club competitions.
Despite the progress that have been made by CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup we find ourselves suddenly behind Asia in terms of organization of club football. Actually none of the African champions have defeated their Asian counterparts at the Club World Cup. What can be done to upgrade our competitions to the stature they deserve? Nothing revolutionary, just follow the lead of the success stories (Basically every other continent).
The biggest clubs in Africa have to come together in one union akin to the European Clubs Association (ECA). The clubs are from different backgrounds but the challenges are more or less the same and will only be solved through a common voice. The ECA has achieved a lot and become a key power-broker in the game since its formation in 2008; to replace the G-14. Some of its achievements, which would undoubtedly be mirrored in Africa, include: financial benefits for clubs from national team competitions, insurance for players’ salaries and a greater say on decision making in UEFA. The key challenges to our competitions are financial reward and travel difficulties. Only if a union is formed to force the hand of CAF will solutions be found since it appears federations have failed. (Apparently every other African fan is not pleased with their federation. Who can blame them?).
Another important aspect would be to harmonize the football calendars of every African country with that of CAF – January to November. This helps solve the fixture problem that has become a new normal when a team is participating in either of the CAF competitions. Presently, some clubs with the European calendar choose to focus on local competitions rather than continental assignments – has been the case in South Africa. Pretty ridiculous but from a financial angle it makes sense. For example, why spend lots of money to travel to hostile venues against amateur sides when the title race is heating up? It does not make sense that some leagues are in the second-half of the season when the continental competitions start. There is also the issue where the clubs participating in Africa suffer from too many league games carried forward. This is due to the fact that calendars are not made in collaboration – CAF puts its dates out and leagues have to find room in there. A huge disadvantage, especially if there are many local cup competitions. Orlando Pirates, CAF Champions League runners-up in 2013, are now playing catch up with the rest of their league.
At the forefront of all suggested solutions should be the expansion of the two competitions. Take the Champions League for instance. It is simply too easy for Ahly, Esperance and TP Mazembe to win. The last a time a team outside those three won it was in 2007; even then Etoile Sahel was a dominant team. Perhaps the biggest indicator is Ahly winning back-to-back titles without league action. I am not taking anything away from their accomplishment, but watching Ghana tear Egypt to shreds or Ahly’s failure at the Club World Cup you have to admit something is wrong. There is little chance that sides like Berekum Chelsea (2012) which even lack proper kitting will be able to upstage the trio. The good news is there are plenty of clubs which match up to those three in Africa. The bad news is that most of them are locked out by the few slots available. It also does not seem fair that the likes of Egypt and Tunisia have only one more slot than the like of Lesotho and Seychelles (No disrespect). The group stage should be expanded by two more groups and have more slots for stronger leagues to allow more of the bigger clubs to participate. It raises the profile of the competition and allows for bigger crowds translating to more money. Look at the example of Tanzania; the two big clubs, Yanga and Simba, are well capable of bringing in crowds of up to 50,000 each. This year Yanga are playing Ahly in the preliminaries and will most likely be knocked out – although the Tanzanians won the first leg 1-0. Not even the halfway stage in the competition and Tanzania’s interest could be gone. What if Simba also got to participate? While at it, the big clubs must also be protected. There is no need for the likes of Kaizer Chiefs, Zamalek and Raja Casablanca to be playing in the preliminary round against clubs incomparable to them in terms of facilities and finances. Because of the few big clubs per season it comes as no surprise that in its entire history there has never been a final involving two teams from the same country. Also, only thrice have two sides from the same country have been to the semi final – 2004, 2005 and 2009. We want to watch our local derbies at the continental level.
Broadcasting is what will finally lift off these competitions. Right now I am unable to watch most of the matches live on TV. I can only watch clubs from my country (Kenya) and South African clubs since the broadcaster is from that country. Occasionally they televise the group stage matches and the final. Al Jazeera broadcasts the group stage matches in North Africa and that’s it. How is a product not available to the masses going to interest them? TV is what has made the biggest football competitions in the world what they are. The viewership, the money and the sponsors. I can give the example of my country’s league. It had degenerated into a sham before the clubs decided to walk away from the federation and would soon afterwards land a historic commercial broadcasting deal that changed the game. Today it is among the best run in Africa. A reformed tournament will be more appealing to the broadcasters and that will present a win for CAF, the clubs and the fans.
Finally, the presentation of these two competitions must be given importance. Pitch-side advertising (only happens during the group stage), the best venues in the country, excellent refereeing (remember 2010 Ahly fans), the list could go on. The point is the product must be visually appealing and look world class. I felt embarrassed when I watched the second leg of the Champions League last year in Cairo and found that it looked inferior visually to a Bundesliga fixture. I am well aware of the problems in Egypt but playing that match at the Arab Contractors stadium was a disservice – no fault of Ahly though. This was the same in the Confederations Cup final second leg between TP Mazembe and CS Sfaxien. Someone tell me what is up with Mazembe stadium’s pitch?