FIFA Has a Plan for Africa. But Who Does It Serve?

A couple of weeks ago, a tweet caught my eye. It seemed, unexpectedly, to reveal that a continentwide African Super League was under construction. Cross-border leagues, as regular readers will know, are something that this newsletter generally supports: They are the most readily available way of addressing soccer’s chronic financial imbalance.

On the surface, notwithstanding the complex logistics, Africa is a prime candidate for such a venture. Many of the continent’s domestic leagues struggle to find investment, to retain talent, to compete for interest with the European tournaments beamed onto their television sets. Africa’s major clubs would, I think, be stronger together.

There is, though, always a below the surface. As a rule, whenever I want to know what it is, I ask my colleague Tariq Panja, who spends so much time in the depths that he could be a submarine. For the last week or so, we’ve been exchanging emails on the subject. This conversation is the result.

Rory Smith: Something strange has happened, Tariq. A few weeks ago, someone drew my attention to a tweet from Barbara Gonzalez, the chief executive at Simba, one of the biggest clubs in Tanzania, that seemed to reveal a plan that would change the face of African soccer: a pan-continental super league.

But that’s not the strange part. The strange part is that it turns out it’s the brainchild of Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president. As a general rule, making sure you’re on the opposite side of any argument from Infantino is a solid strategy. But in this case my instinct is to say that, at least as an idea, this kind of makes sense.

Please explain to me why I am wrong, so that the world can be restored to its axis.

Tariq Panja: As with everything when it comes to FIFA — and typically FIFA under Gianni Infantino — the devil is in the detail. Or, in this case, the lack of detail.

Infantino first announced his big idea for Africa in 2019, but it had been dormant until this random tweet (more on that in a minute). But when Infantino first went public, people inside FIFA say there was no business plan: just Gianni firing from the hip, claiming it could generate $200 million in revenue. That’s a big number as far as African club football is concerned, but there is no evidence of where it came from.

It reminds me of the time Gianni walked into a FIFA Council meeting and told the board to sign a document that would allow him to sell the Club World Cup to private investors (who turned out to be SoftBank). The members, led by European officials, wanted details. An internal audit found the event was worth considerably less than Gianni had suggested.

Now, back to the tweet: It turns out FIFA officials were surprised, too. Barbara González walked up to Gianni at the Confederation of African Football Congress and asked to have her photo taken with him. Five minutes later, she sent out the tweet. Now I’m not saying a league in Africa is a bad idea, but surely there must be a robust plan before such a major project is undertaken?

RS: If nothing else, you have to admire the chutzpah of that, not least because Infantino strikes me as precisely the sort of person who would fall for the old “as you were saying” ruse.

There does, as you say, have to be a robust plan: economically, of course, but in a sporting sense, too. The basic idea strikes me as sound. Certainly south of the Sahara, African club soccer struggles horribly for investment. That means that the vast majority of nations that produce a constant stream of players for European clubs rarely see any of that talent on show in domestic leagues. That, in turn, hardly entices fans to go and watch games live. And that completes a neat but vicious circle, because it means that, yes, clubs struggle horribly for investment.

A Super League would address some of those issues. A better television deal, if nothing else, would enable clubs to invest in infrastructure. That might help nurture young talent and keep it for a little longer. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that a Pan-African league might be able to rival one of the talent-generating leagues in Europe — the Netherlands or Portugal, say — for quality in a relatively short space of time.

Of course, there is one thorny issue that I haven’t yet had the nerve to bring up. I reckon I could come up with a fairly cogent list of 20 or so African teams that would have a good case for inclusion, thanks to history or support or location. But I am guessing that Infantino and CAF, which is now run by a staunch ally of his, might have a different system in mind?

TP: The little we know so far is that there is an expectation that participating teams would have to invest at least $20 million per season, for five seasons. For clubs in Africa, that is a significant outlay, and it suggests it would not be the most popular teams, so much as the ones that have the backing of wealthy benefactors. But again: Beyond the odd tweet and Gianni’s off-the-cuff remarks, we have nothing concrete.

There are other ways of trying to come up with likely participants. You could use the CAF club coefficient, which is essentially a points system for clubs in the region based on their historic success. But that would mean a league dominated by clubs from wealthier North African countries, with only a dozen or so of the continent’s 54 countries likely to be represented.

RS: That lack of representation would, I think, ultimately be unavoidable. For a tournament like this to be valid, there are certain clubs that would have to be included. Al Ahly and Zamalek from Cairo, would be names one and two. Both Raja and Wydad from Casablanca, and Esperance and Étoile du Sahel, the twin totems of Tunisian soccer.

You would certainly need South Africa’s Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. And you could throw Mamelodi Sundowns in there, too: It is owned by Patrice Motsepe, Infantino’s ally and the new CAF president. Simba, of Tanzania, clearly expect to be involved. TP Mazembe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, would have to be.

Beyond that, the continent’s powerhouse nations — Cameroon, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and, particularly, Nigeria — would command at least one place each. Suddenly, the whole thing looks pretty full, even before thinking about Angola, Sudan and Ethiopia.

TP: If there was a method to wrap this league into the existing pyramid, there would probably be far more buy-in. The idea that teams from across the region would have — at least in theory — a shot at one day making it into the competition would make the proposition far more palatable to those, even among the larger clubs, who are not enthused about it.

Even then, there are the logistics of it: not only to create a level playing field, but a sensible calendar and schedule, given the enormous differences in weather and transport infrastructure across the region. Given the uncertainty and sense of unease among the African football community, there needs to be an urgent and transparent discussion about what this is, and what this is not. A series of clandestine meetings followed by a high-profile announcement that does not stand up to scrutiny is not enough.

RS: There is, definitely, a back-of-a-cigarette-packet air to the idea. And worse still, it has the feel of something that is being imposed on Africa, rather than generated from within it. The problem of representation bears that out: this sort of thing is much easier to conceive if, deep down, you regard Africa as a single, homogeneous entity, grateful for your interest.

And that — given Infantino’s apparent passion for the idea — makes you wonder what the purpose of it all is. Has it been suggested in an attempt to make African domestic soccer stronger, a challenging but essentially admirable aim? Or is there something else at play here?

TP: There’s a suspicion that Gianni’s motivations may be less to do with securing the future of African soccer and more his hopes of creating a club competition that can rival and, eventually, overtake the Champions League. For that to happen, the expanded Club World Cup needs teams from all over the world who can compete with the powerhouses of Europe.

In that light, Africa might just be the start, the canary in the coal mine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but those involved should be clear about their intentions. And a defining project for the future of African soccer should be guided by those with skin in the game, no question, rather than a Swiss bureaucrat intent on a legacy project.

RS: Ah, that’s a relief. I feel as though I am on much more solid ground now: the idea might have some merit, but the rationale behind it may not. That may not be good news for African soccer, which finds itself being used as a pawn in a broader power game, but it’s good news for my personal moral compass, because it means I don’t have to worry about being on the same side of an argument as Gianni Infantino.

Pushing Back Another Bad Idea

There was, just as there was always going to be, one last hurdle to clear. Most European soccer executives were expecting a blueprint for a new vision of the Champions League to be approved — both by UEFA, the competition’s organizer, and the European Clubs Association, Andrea Agnelli’s bad-idea factory — and announced this week.

That had to be pushed back, though, when several of the continent’s major teams blew up the deal at the 11th hour: It turns out that actually they want to have final say on the competition’s commercial rights, too. Suddenly, it seems as if the new-look Champions League may end up being the lesser of two evils.

Quite how that revamped competition will work is laid out clearly and concisely — and, crucially, in the form of a graphic — here. So clearly and concisely, in fact, that for the first time it is possible to say without fear of having missed something that this iteration of the Champions League will make the tournament immeasurably worse.

Not, though, for the reasons so often given. Yes, there will be more meetings between the game’s superpowers, and for lower stakes. Yes, the whole thing is bloated. Yes, it will starve domestic competitions of oxygen. And yes, it still might serve to entrench the financial inequality that is the real enemy of the game’s ongoing health.

But the main problem is much simpler: The redesign reduces the Champions League’s competitive integrity. It is, essentially, invalid to draw up a league table in which all of the teams play different opponents. It renders it meaningless. And it is quite likely that fans, who are not as stupid as they are taken to be, will notice.

The Week the Tables Turned

A few days ago, as England threatened to run up the score in a World Cup qualifier against San Marino, the poacher-turned-pundit Gary Lineker suggested it was time to admit that these mismatches — which characterize a substantial amount of international soccer — were of benefit and interest to precisely nobody.

Instead, he said, perhaps it would be in everyone’s interests for some of Europe’s smaller nations to engage in a prequalifying tournament, playing one another for the right to face the continent’s elite, and England. The reaction — Do I really need to say this? You know what the reaction is, because it’s always the same reaction — was furious.

To Lineker’s critics, those who accused him of trying to ghettoize soccer’s underdogs, what followed was karmic retribution. Luxembourg won at Ireland. Spain needed a late goal to avoid a draw with Georgia. Latvia tied Turkey. And, best of all, North Macedonia beat Germany, the country’s first loss in a World Cup qualifier for 20 years.

It goes without saying that all of these results were welcome, impressive, and hilarious. But it does not mean that the idea Lineker espoused — one that has been around for years — should be dismissed.

First of all: That is how qualifying works in Africa, Asia and North and Central America. It helps to thin the calendar a little, something that matters at a time when players are being run into the ground by all of the teams they represent. Second: The success of the Nations League has shown that games between smaller nations are more competitive, and therefore both more entertaining and more educational, than watching the same teams be steamrollered by the giants.

And third: At the same time as all those shocks were rumbling through Europe, England was scoring five against San Marino, the Czechs ran in six in Estonia, and both Belgium and Denmark scored eight, against Belarus and Moldova. Worse still, a team managed by Frank de Boer scored seven against Gibraltar. Some of soccer’s lesser lights are competitive. Some are not. If only there was a way of selecting which teams fell into which categories.

The Haaland Shake

We have been here before. On Thursday, it emerged that Mino Raiola and Alfie Haaland — respectively the agent and the father of Erling Haaland, the goal cyborg — were in Catalonia for a meeting with Joan Laporta, the freshly-minted president of Barcelona. The race for the hottest property in European soccer is, it seems, on.

It is a move straight from the playbook that eventually led the younger Haaland to Borussia Dortmund, his current home, about 15 months ago. Expect Raiola and Haaland’s father to turn up in relatively short order in Madrid, too. They will almost certainly stop off in London after that: Chelsea harbors hopes of signing the 20-year-old Haaland. They may need two days in Manchester; they would not want to rush United or City.

The fact that they are doing their due diligence on their client/son’s next home is, then, no surprise. More eye-catching is the fact that they feel Barcelona’s hopes of signing Haaland are valid, given that Dortmund has made it plain that it will not sell him for less than $150 million, and because Barcelona is, well, currently about $1 billion in debt.

Laporta, clearly, feels he can make a deal work. Perhaps he can. Perhaps there is some way of shifting the money around enough for Barcelona to remain a viable candidate. The appeal is obvious: Signing Haaland would, almost at a stroke, turn Barcelona into major players again. But then so, too, is the problem: After all the club has been through, would it really be a good idea?

The Final Sprint

Aside from the virgin hope of opening day — and possibly the breathless frenzy of Christmas — this is the best part of the soccer season. The end of the March international break heralds not only the arrival of spring, but the start of European club soccer’s race to the summit. Over the next two months, closure will arrive.

Better yet, this time around, we hit the ground running. The top two in both France and Germany will meet on Saturday: first, Lille visits Paris St.-Germain, the two of them level on points, and only a nose ahead of Lyon and Monaco. (I’ll have a story on Lille posting in a few hours.) No sooner has that finished, though, than RB Leipzig hosts a Bayern Munich deprived of Robert Lewandowski, and knowing that a win would close the gap at the top of the Bundesliga to a single point.

In England, meanwhile, the ultimate prize is off the table: It is a matter of when, not if, Manchester City claims a third title in four years. But the battle to finish second, third and fourth — and therefore obtain a place in next season’s not-yet-ruined Champions League — promises to be enthralling. My money would be on Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester, in that order, but it’s so close that it wouldn’t be much of my money.

Correspondence

Only space for one, this week, from Charles Knights. “I’m trying to figure out how much disappointment is warranted right now as a supporter of the United States,” he wrote. “How do you rate the U.S.A. men’s team’s failed attempts to qualify for Tokyo? There’s a lot of talk about the Olympics as a training ground for the next generation, but when I look at the U.S. squad, the next generation is playing senior friendlies in Europe.”

This is only a personal perspective, Charles, and it is a distinctly European one: My view would, I think, be different if I was South American or African. But in the narrow context of soccer, I’m not convinced the Olympics matter particularly.

It is special for the players to win a gold medal, of course, particularly when it at least rivals the high-point of that country’s soccer achievements thus far (Nigeria in 1996, Cameroon in 2000, Mexico in 2012) or when it is Argentina (2004 and 2008), and the World Cup brings nothing but misery.

But in terms of being used a signpost for greater things to come? In men’s soccer, no, not really. Put it this way: I had to check who won the gold at Rio in 2016. Turns out it was Brazil! They must have enjoyed that. It probably didn’t make up for what happened in a different tournament on home soil a couple of years earlier.

Women’s soccer, of course, has historically placed much more importance on it — the cover of Abby Wambach’s autobiography describes her as a gold medalist, rather than a World Cup winner — but I wonder if that, too, will change with the increased focus on the Women’s World Cup.

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