Morocco may well have broken barriers for African football with the country’s historic run to the World Cup semi-finals, but the club game on the continent is still lagging well behind the standards in Europe.
As such, Confederation of African Football (Caf) president Patrice Motsepe is hoping 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” when he unveiled the latest plans in Tanzania in August.
Flanked by the the boss of world football’s governing body, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, Motsepe stressed it was all about pumping more money into club football in Africa, with $100m available as prize money and the winners getting $11.5m.
The tournament had been mooted to kick off in August 2023, with plans to involve 24 clubs from 16 countries, although recent reports suggest that there may only be eight teams now.
However many there are in a format that may well follow the European Champions League, the plan is to culminate in a ‘Super Bowl-like’ final in May 2024.
The intention is the Africa Super League will run alongside the existing African Champions League, which features 16 teams in its group stage but has been dominated by North African sides over the past decade.
Caf is promising a huge investment of $200m in total – not only for the participating clubs, but also for the development of the women’s game and youth academies in its 54 member countries.
Too good to be true? Some people think so.
‘Opaque’ club selection
“We’ve not been consulted once,” bridles John Comitis, the chairman and owner of Cape Town City FC, which competes in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL).
The former striker has been involved in African football for almost 40 years and is not happy about what he calls “the opaque selection process” of the clubs for the new Super League.
Comitis says he received a couple of lists of the clubs which would be included, and believes that the chosen ones are “politically positioned clubs, owned by certain rich individuals or by the state”.
State ownership of football clubs is still quite common across Africa, although that is not the case in South Africa itself.
Comitis’ biggest concern is the effect the new continental competition might have on the PSL, which he describes as “very efficient and professional” in terms of funding and broadcasting rights.
“The infrastructure nightmare of Africa is unprecedented,” he says, highlighting how his team travelled to DR Congo for a game and could not get there and back in less than five days and describing the costs of the journey as “outrageous.”
In this context, Comitis believes it will be almost impossible to fit Super League games into the existing schedule and that national leagues will undoubtedly suffer, potentially losing broadcast money if the top clubs are fielding B-teams in domestic games.
“At the end of the day, we are protecting our businesses and South African football,” he concludes.
Some may call that sour grapes, as Comitis has clearly indicated that his team was not one of the chosen 24 once earmarked for the Super League.
It is still unclear where the planned $200m prize and development fund will come from, especially after Caf reported a loss of over $40m in its most recent audited accounts., even if Motsepe continually talks of significant interest from the commercial sector.
A Caf spokesperson said Motsepe, elected as Caf boss in March 2021, “has the best interests of African football at heart”.
There is, meanwhile, no doubt that mining billionaire Motsepe has invested a lot of his personal fortune into the game as owner of the reigning South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns.
Making African game more competitive
Should they actually happen, the sums involved would make the African Super League more valuable than the Africa Cup of Nations, which has always garnered international attention and culminated in a final which pitted then-Liverpool team-mates and global icons Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah against each other when Senegal beat Egypt in February.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a Nigerian football journalist, believes the concept for the new club competition was not designed in Africa, but was, in fact, the brainchild of Infantino.
“There is a belief outside of Africa that Africans need to be led like babies. I find this highly insulting,” Obayiuwana said.
Just like Comitis, Obayiuwana is concerned the football calendar will become far too congested.
Should 24 teams take part, the Africa Super League would feature 24 match days over a season – a lot to fit in alongside domestic campaigns spread across around 38 weeks and African Champions League commitments.
Add to that the logistics of extra travel across the continent, which presents a challenge in itself, and the scale of the task is clear.
“You can imagine the amount of pressure that will be on the players,” Obayiuwana added.
Caf says details of the Africa Super League are still being ironed out but, amid a lot of criticism and unanswered questions, the new competition does have its big-name supporters.
South Africa’s record goalscorer Benni McCarthy played in Africa and Europe, winning the European Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004, and is now first-team coach at Manchester United after spells managing in his homeland at Cape Town City and AmaZulu.
He thinks the new Super League will provide more earning potential for clubs and a better platform for players which could be transformative.
“I would love to see an African player compete against the best players in the world because it’s been too long since we had an African win the Ballon d’Or,” the 45-year-old said, referencing Liberian George Weah’s victory in 1995.
“African football is brilliant but it is not on the same level as European football. The speed and the technical side are different to what players are used to in Africa.
“I think the Super League will remove that barrier by making African football more competitive.”
That is the hope, but, in reality, if the new Africa Super League is to have a fighting chance of succeeding it will need to attract TV money, which is the lifeblood of football in Europe and helped make England’s 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 African football – with their argument being that the product is not deserving of their investment.
So, how do you resolve this chicken and the egg situation? Without TV money and sponsorship, it will be a struggle to develop the quality of the football on show.
Obayiuwana believes Caf should build local leagues first, promote them on the continent and make them into brands.
Then, just as with the Champions League in Europe, fans will “get to know the players and clubs and will be invested in them, which is not the case in Africa”.
It starts with people actually being able to watch matches across the continent, which in many countries is a real issue.
“It is easier for me to watch the Europa League in Lagos than to watch a match between Esperance and Raja Casablanca in the African Champions League,” the Nigerian said.
Despite the progress by African sides at the World Cup, improving the club game could prove a tougher challenge for Motsepe.