The African Football League is finally kicking off. But is it a good idea?

FIFA and CAF hope Africa’s newest club competition will boost funding and help develop the game, but some have concerns.

Al Ahly fans celebrate in the stands
Fans of Egyptian giants Al Ahly, who are among eight teams in the inaugural version [File: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Cape Town, South Africa – The inaugural season of the African Football League kicks off on Friday with Tanzania’s Simba SC hosting Egypt’s Al Ahly in the first leg of their quarterfinal.

The new continental club competition – spearheaded by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the sport’s global governing body, FIFA – was originally supposed to feature Africa’s 24 best clubs in a mini-league and then knockout format.

But numerous complications have seen the number of teams cut to eight in a knockout format in its first year: the other teams are Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa), Petro de Luanda (Angola), TP Mazembe (DRC), Es Tunis (Tunisia), Enyimba International (Nigeria) and Wydad Casablanca (Morocco).

Teams for the inaugural edition were selected based on rankings points, with no more than one representative per country.

And while CAF had initially promised $100m in prize money with $11.5m for the winner of the competition, each team will be guaranteed $1m for taking part in the inaugural season, and the overall winner will walk away with $4m – still a hefty sum, equal to what the CAF Champions League winners receive while playing much fewer games.

The organisers are adamant that the AFL, which will run concurrently with CAF’s Champions League, is a precursor to the fully fledged AFL competition next season, which will feature the 22 highest-ranked football African clubs.

CAF and FIFA say the AFL will raise the quality of African club football, make it more watchable and appealing to a wider audience, and dramatically boost revenues to fund improvements to infrastructure and conditions in football across the continent, and encourage more players to remain in Africa rather than moving to Europe.

“We have recognised for many years that African football players have been among the best in the world, but we have to improve the appeal of African football, its commercial viability and its capacity to sustain itself,” CAF president Patrice Motsepe, billionaire businessman and owner of South Africa’s champions Mamelodi Sundowns, said in July when confirming the launch of the eight-team version.

All of the experts Al Jazeera spoke to agreed that, as Clint Roper, general manager of Soccer Laduma and Kickoff puts it, “the African continent is crying out for a competition that puts players in the international spotlight”.

But many have questioned whether the AFL is the right vehicle to improve African football.

“If done right this could be a game-changer, it does have elements that hint at a better future,” News 24 football journalist Njabulo Ngidi told Al Jazeera.

“But it also has worrying elements.”

Teething problems

While FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Motsepe’s grand dream hasn’t materialised just yet, the fact that the AFL is going ahead at all must be a relief to both men.

Earlier this month the Premier Soccer League’s board voted unanimously against Mamelodi Sundowns’ participation, citing fixture congestion – although the decision was unanimously reversed at an emergency meeting on October 13, with no official reason given.

Meanwhile, the issue of TV rights for African football is an unresolved snag. Pending a broadcast deal, all AFL games will be aired on YouTube.

While this might seem like a boon for accessibility, Ngidi says it is exactly the opposite. Of the 43 percent of Africans who have access to the internet, the vast majority do so via expensive mobile data connections. If and when a broadcasting deal is reached, it’s highly likely the AFL will not be free-to-air.

Peter du Toit, founder of the This is Football.Africa podcast, is not surprised that the new tournament has come up against so many headwinds.

“People like what they know and are wary of what they don’t know,” he said, giving the example of “the biggest tournament the world has ever known,” – the World Cup.

“When the first tournament happened in Uruguay in 1930 only eight teams accepted the invitation to attend. And look at it now.”

A similar thing happened when the expanded UEFA Champions League format replaced the European Cup, he adds.

“The chances of getting all the top [24] clubs to come on board at the same time was a fantasy. And it may have been a disaster,” he said, adding that it’s not a good idea to look too far ahead.

“We need to see the standard of the soccer, the TV figures,” he said. “The second year will be the real test.”

Financially, at least, signs are improving. Last week, the Saudi Arabian tourism board, Visit Saudi, came on board as the new competition’s main sponsor of the AFL. And several other high-profile sponsors have signed on in the last week.

If the AFL is still going strong in a few years, there’s a real possibility, Du Toit says, that stars such as Egypt and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah or Senegal and Al Nassr’s Sadio Mane could finish their careers in Africa.

“This, in turn, will attract even more viewers and sponsors,” he said.

Ngidi says it’s essential that AFL revenues are shared fairly with the smaller leagues and clubs.

“In the initial media statement [CAF] said that each member association will get some money. But they didn’t say how much.”

When Al Jazeera put these concerns to Luxolo September, Acting Director of Communications for CAF, he said: “The AFL will not only benefit Africa’s strongest clubs, the distribution of money generated by the AFL will go to all 54 CAF members and local leagues to improve football development in those countries.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. And there’s also the risk that the associations might squander the funding.

“It would be great if money was ring-fenced for specific projects,” Ngidi stressed. “They need to say, ‘you can only do xyz with the money’.”

To this end, September says that one of the objectives of the AFL is “contributing to the building of youth academies for boys and girls and football infrastructure in the 54 countries that are represented by CAF’s member associations”.

Du Toit hopes that initiatives like this become a reality.

“We’ve got to make sure that local leagues don’t become secondary,” he said.

“Professionalisation of African soccer is going to happen, but it needs to happen in the right way. Progress needs to have a trickle-down effect.”

Meanwhile, if the AFL does take off, the CAF Champions League also faces a rocky road.

The existing flagship continental competition features 68 teams from all 54 African associations in the first round. With qualification for the AFL being based solely on rankings points, countries like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa will likely have more than one representative in an expanded AFL, reducing opportunities for teams from smaller, less competitive leagues.

“There are some positives [to the AFL], and it’s definitely the way the game is going,” Ngidi said.

“But it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t simply make the rich get richer. I really worry that it will only deepen the inequality in African soccer.”

September, meanwhile, says the AFL is all about ensuring that “African football retains its best football talent on the African continent and continues to ensure the long-term success, strength and sustainability of African club football.”

‘A litmus test’?

While some have compared the AFL with the failed European Super League, there are key differences; the ESL was a breakaway initiative that threatened to divert money from FIFA and the European football governing body, UEFA.

Also, unlike the invitation-only ESL which was a closed-shop with no threat of relegation, the AFL is – nominally at least – a meritocracy.

But why did Motsepe and Infantino create a new and competing product when they could simply have revamped the CAF Champions League?

“Because a revamp is not sexy,” Ngidi said with a laugh. “And it’s not as big for your legacy.”

Ngidi says ultimately he is “not a fan [of the AFL] on principle” as he sees it as a “legacy programme” for Motsepe and Infantino. “It’s a vanity project of these two men more than it is a football programme.”

FIFA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication. But September, from CAF, denied this accusation.

“While the CAF President Dr Motsepe sees the African Football League as one of the most exciting projects by CAF, what he would like to achieve for Africa is to ensure that football in the African continent is globally competitive and self-sustaining,” he said.

“He would like to ensure that African Member Associations can generate the resources that will unlock the growth and sustainability of football.”

Roper, meanwhile, wonders if it’s part of an even bigger plan on Infantino’s part.

“Is this not a litmus test to show the European teams who wanted to form a breakaway league that this kind of thing can be done via a governing body and still be very lucrative?”

Source: Al Jazeera