Unfazed by April’s cataclysmic failure of the European Super League project, and the accompanying backlash received by participating clubs, new Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe appears determined to push on with Africa’s own version.
It was inevitable, following Motsepe’s ascension to the top job in African football — even before the failure of the European Super League project — that an African version would again be discussed.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who had a big influence in Motsepe’s rise to prominence within football governance, had first outlined his vision for a Super League in November 2019.
“We have to take the 20 best African clubs and put them in an Africa league,” he said. “Such a league could make at least $200 million in revenue, which would put it among the top 10 in the world.”
This vision was revived by Motsepe upon his election, with CEO of Tanzania’s Simba SC, Barbara Gonzalez, shedding light on background discussions around the project in the immediate aftermath of his appointment.
“The rollout of the African Super League with 20 permanent member clubs is underway,” she wrote on Twitter in the hours after Motsepe’s election. “We look forward to having Simba SC participate soon.“
That was before the catastrophe that was the European version, and while that initiative being stopped in its tracks could feasibly have deterred Africa’s leaders, it appears only to have fuelled their desire to launch the ASL.
“We have been following attempts by some top European clubs to form a Super League and will learn from their experience and pitfalls,” Motsepe told journalists, as per AFP, last month.
“In this regard, we are assessing and in preliminary discussions to start an inclusive, broadly supported, and beneficial African Super League.”
Despite the broad consensus of condemnation that accompanied Europe’s version, could an African edition get off the ground, and what kind of execution could work for parties across the continent?
Exclusivity undermines sporting principles
Plans continue, but how exactly do CAF ensure that an ASL would be both ‘broadly supported and beneficial to the continent as a whole? The questions and conflicts that appear to undermine any potential African Super League are myriad.
A primary concern, one that was protested so viscerally when Europe’s super clubs announced their plans, is the lack of sporting open-ness in the concept of a closed shop of 20 clubs.
Even if some of the ASL’s representatives had to qualify, if others were gifted their positions routinely by virtue of their revenue, or their fanbase, or the deep pockets of their ownership, it would go against the sporting principles that underpin football pyramids across Africa.
“It’s always dangerous to make an exclusive competition for certain clubs who are chosen to be there based on their standard at that moment and not by qualification,” Gambia head coach and former Nigeria national technical director Tom Saintfiet told ESPN.
“Only two or three teams from one country would benefit, and not the whole country,” he added. “[Teams’ success] can be temporal — if you look at Europe, at Manchester City, they’re now a giant, but 20 years ago they weren’t.
“It’s the same [problem]as in Europe, where you’re choosing just a few clubs — what is the basis to be one of these big teams? Kaizer Chiefs finished eighth in the league this season, so if you base it on [current performance], they couldn’t be part [of a Super League].“
For Frank Nuttall, who has worked at major clubs in Egypt, Kenya, and Ghana among others, meritocracy would be fundamental to any Super League project.
“It cannot be the case that those with the most money get into that league, there would have to be some kind of link back into the [local]structure and somehow there must be that commitment back to the local league and the local association,” the ex-SC Zamalek coach told ESPN.
“Meritocracy is fundamental to sports and fundamental to football; if you succeed you can go further and go higher, but if you don’t, then you have to step aside and let others have the opportunity to succeed.”
It’s unclear quite how CAF’s proposal could strike this balance.
Even more elitist is Infantino’s proposal of clubs being required to contribute a buy-in payment of $20 million every year for a five-year period — a barrier to entry that would prevent all but Africa’s richest clubs from participating.
However, Nuttall believes that this problem could be solved if the financial incentives — contingent on CAF negotiating a strong broadcast deal for the product — are there.
“It comes down to the financial benefits for the owners and the countries,” he continued. “As soon as those things come into it, then I’m sure they would be very interested.
“It’s a great opportunity for Africa because the sport continues to grow, there’s huge love and passion for football, and it would attract much attention and media coverage.
“[There would be] a huge amount of business, wealth creation, and not just for the clubs and the club owners, but for the wider communities as well.“
How can 20 teams represent a continent?
The presence of a buy-in, however, raises further concern — and perhaps a fundamental paradox with the concept — of how a Super League would be truly inclusive.
Infantino talked about a tournament to “really crown the club champions of Africa,” but how could a league that includes representatives from a maximum of 20 nations — although likely to be much lower with two or three clubs invited for some of the biggest countries — realistically be said to represent the whole of Africa?
The majority of CAF’s 54 member nations would be stuck on the outside looking in, watching as the Ahlys and the Wydads of this world duke it out year on year.
With CAF yet to reveal their determining factors to select the teams for the inaugural edition, there’s no clear plan to assess, but it’s hard to see how a viable process could be put in place that works for all parties.
Will there be a bidding process? Will historical performance be taken into account? Will it be based on the recent CAF club coefficient? Will the size of the fanbase be taken into account? Revenue? Ownership model?
The parameters by which the field of competitors will be decided will be influential in ensuring the scale of the competition’s commercial success, but it will be impossible to ensure a pan-African representation or meritocracy.
Will fans even want yet another tournament?
Saintfiet questions whether there truly is the appetite among African supporters for such a venture in a league format.
“Lots of people watch a lot of football, but there are limits,” he said, “and at this moment, in African football, interest in the Confederation Cup and the Champions League is not what it is compared to the European Champions League.
“I think long term, the public in Africa won’t be that interested in it, and I think the local leagues are bigger than the [CAF] Champions League.
“It’s more important for Ahly or Zamalek to win the local league, and while the Champions League is a nice addition, if you look at South Africa and other major leagues, it’s more important for fans to win their own league.“
Saintfiet believes also that the repetitiveness of fixtures between the continent’s heavyweights — despite vast differences in location, culture, and sporting context — will dampen any long-term enthusiasm.
“The continent is so diverse, so big, so wide, that when Zamalek plays against Kaizer Chiefs for the 10th time, I’m not 100 percent sure that fans will still be that interested in watching these games on television.“
Nuttall shares similar reservations but believes that a tweak in the format of a Super League — something that has partially been mooted with the idea of regionalized qualifiers — could keep things fresh.
“The problem with a 20-team league is that people get excited when they’re at the top or at the bottom – for different reasons,” Nuttall continued, “but there’s a whole group in the middle who are just going through the motions, without the excitement at the top or the stress at the bottom.
“Federations around the world have tried to move away from [a 20-team league]so I’d move to say 16, or 12, because it’s more manageable and there are enough teams there to make it truly competitive.”
For all the cons, there are pros
For Zimbabwe head coach Zdravko Logarusic, it’s imperative that CAF’s plan goes ahead — primarily because of how it could improve the overall standard and competitiveness of African football.
Zimbabwe head coach Zdravko Logarusic
“The Super League must happen,” he told ESPN. “Look at the last World Cup, where no African team advanced from the group stage.
“Every country has top clubs, but their leagues aren’t so competitive, and you need greater competitiveness to expose those African players who aren’t in Europe to the highest level.
“Maybe Africa’s teams missed that five percent or 10 percent extra required to reach the second round of the World Cup, but that missing percentage can come with the Super League experience.“
Nuttall also dismissed any concerns that Africa’s infrastructure — a problem in many countries for local league games — would struggle to support a Super League.
“The air transport system in Africa is good enough,” the ex-Gor Mahia and Hearts of Oak manager began. “It’s possible that some of the problems that exist are created because of poor logistics because there’s not that desire to spend money on this.
“If there’s the financial incentive of getting a good result away in, say, North Africa, then you’ll probably find that the planning and logistics become a lot better.
“There are many hub airports in Africa, so if the money’s there, it won’t be an issue.“
He sees the chief long-term benefit of the Super League is the positive impact on local communities from wealth generation but cautions that CAF must require clubs to meet certain criteria in order to be eligible for the tournament.
Super League participation must be a motivating factor, he says, to ensure clubs prioritize corporate social responsibility within their communities.
Nuttall continued: “There should be some requirements for the clubs who go into the Super League with regards to club structure, CAF licensing, youth development, and clear ongoing education programs for the coaching staff.
“It could encourage clubs to get their houses in order in order to take part, and this could be used as a carrot to ensure good governance.“
Will domestic leagues grow or suffer?
It’s a considerable ambition, but if realized, could be the ultimate factor to justify the Super League project, which threatens to change the African football landscape forever.
“It’s a possibility that you might kill the local leagues,” Logarusic concluded, “but if you want to get something, you might have to lose something.
“There are so many sponsors, that even if the big sponsors moved to the Super League, there would still be local sponsors who would stay.”
For Saintfiet, however, CAF and Motsepe ought to focus on the growth of the existing Champions League to improve the base of football in the continent, rather than instigate plans that risk benefiting only a few.
He said: “In recent years, African football has already developed more than before, and I think the key thing to help it grow further is not by making certain clubs bigger but by increasing the base in each country so that every local league has more than two or three teams who always battle for the championship.
“With stability, clubs can focus on development; the base of football is the future of football, not these few in Africa, the 12 giants who have a lot of money, a lot of broadcast time, and many fans.
“The base is not only these clubs, but it is every league, for each to have a whole group of teams, to be well developed with time, money, and infrastructure to develop their own quality players.
“This is the most important thing in African football development.”
The two ambitions may be aligned to an extent, but only time will tell if Motsepe can get the Super League plan off the ground, and if it can truly ensure wealth cascades through African football to those who need it the most.