Why Africa Fails at the World Cup

The continent's teams have consistently been unable to live up to fans' expectations at the soccer tournament

Why Africa Fails at the World Cup
Nigeria’s Rashidi Yekini grabs the net in celebration after scoring his country’s first-ever goal in a soccer World Cup in Dallas, Texas, in 1994. (Henri Szwarc/Getty Images)

Nigeria has long been the most consistent African presence in the soccer World Cup and the only country on the continent to have made it to the tournament’s knockout round on three separate occasions. This year, it is the most notable absentee from the quintet of Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia representing the continent in Qatar, at the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East.

For many, the image of the late Rashidi Yekini celebrating the first Nigerian goal at the World Cup against Bulgaria in 1994, grabbing and shaking the net at the stadium in Dallas, Texas, remains iconic. With an intimidating frame, gazelle-like speed and deadly accuracy, Yekini — who died at the early age of 49 — was one of the all-time top goal scorers at the African Cup of Nations, with 13 goals at the tournament between 1984 and 1994.

Yet it was not his sterling international career with the Super Eagles, as the Nigerian team was known, that was most admirable about the late African great. Having finished a professional sojourn in European club soccer, in which he emerged as the top scorer in the Portuguese premier league, Yekini took a decision in 2005 that was unheard of at the time, and is still rare for African footballers who have starred in Europe: to return to Nigeria and end his club career there.

For the unassuming Yekini, returning to the Nigerian championship that first put him on the path to fame, in order to help restore its lost prestige and profile, was something that gave him great pleasure.

“Sincerely speaking, it is not easy to come back home [to a poorly organized league] after playing European football at a high level,” he told me in the last major interview he granted, before his passing a decade ago. “If I dwell on the problems in Nigerian football, I will not lace my boots,” he added. “I have to pretend that I have not played football in Europe, in order to cope with the poor facilities at home.”

Decrepit stadiums, with poor pitches that can be likened to potato farms, and poor coaching — as a result of the lack of a critical mass of top-class coaches, which militates against the proper development of footballers — have been just some of the barriers to the development of soccer players in Nigeria and most parts of sub-Saharan Africa for several decades. But the primary challenge — a lack of a decent income stream from commercial partners for the large numbers of clubs in sub-Saharan Africa — has led to most clubs paying very poor wages, with players earning far less than $500 per month. This contrasts starkly with their counterparts in North Africa, where top players, like those at Egypt’s Al Ahly, can earn up to $1 million per year, as the Nigerian striker Junior Ajayi did while he was playing there.

The cocktail of problems ensures that the stream of talent from Africa to European club soccer continues — at the expense of the development of league soccer across the continent, which needs to retain talent to build a soccer product with commercial value.

Yekini had a prescience seen in very few members of his generation of African footballers in European club soccer, one which seems to still be lacking in those who have since followed, who would never consider a return to club soccer on the continent. Many, indeed, would deem it a humiliating step down.

“People must realize that I started playing football here and the experience I got in Europe needs to be shared with the young players in Nigeria, so they can know what football is all about. My colleagues know how much I love the game, so none of them were going to ask me why I am doing what I am doing. When I want to do something, it is entirely down to me,” he explained.

Very little has changed since Yekini’s passing in May 2012.

The harsh realities of the cash-starved financial ecosystem and the very poor infrastructure available for domestic soccer in several parts of the continent leave the cream of Nigerian and most sub-Saharan African footballers seeking fame and fortune in Europe. (The notable exception is South Africa, which has a vibrant and financially lucrative Premier Soccer League, or PSL.)

The exodus of African talent to the world’s top leagues, where the likes of Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mane have flourished, has played a key role in raising the technique and quality of players from the continent, who bring their world-class skills to significantly improve the competitive levels of their national teams.

Not a single African team that has beaten a South American or European world champion at the World Cup finals — as Cameroon did in the opening game of the 1990 tournament, beating Diego Maradona’s Argentina, or as Senegal did when it beat Thierry Henry’s France in 2002 — did so without a critical mass of Europe-based club players on their teams.

The exodus of players from Africa to Europe has had little negative impact on the quality of club soccer played in the Maghreb and other parts of North Africa, where clubs like Egypt’s Ahly and Zamalek, Algeria’s Entente Setif, Tunisia’s Esperance and Morocco’s Wydad and Raja continue to dominate the African Champions League and Confederation Cup, the two leading club competitions on the continent. These clubs also compete in very tough domestic championships, which are largely well-run, with an attendant fan base that creates a soccer ecosystem that is self-sustaining. Yet the fortunes of their sub-Saharan counterparts could scarcely be more different.

With the exception of clubs like TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Horoya of Guinea and Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs of South Africa, many sub-Saharan clubs lack the requisite inflow of television and other sponsorship income to enable them to function.

The state of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) is a case in point. It has had no sponsors for the last five years, nor any television coverage for the same period, which has allowed a culture of corruption and match-fixing to thrive. A member of the NPFL’s Interim Management Committee, Auwalu Baba Jada, was recently suspended by the Nigeria Football Federation at the start of November, after he was caught on video boasting about how he fixed league games.

This followed a shocking revelation by the 20 NPFL clubs, in a communiqué published by the Nigeria Football Federation in October, which said that “matches for sale in the league were sold to the highest bidder,” leaving the league in Africa’s most populous country without a shred of sporting integrity or competitive credibility.

“When I take a tour around the continent, I see that we are very behind. It is time to take care of this continent, not only in football but also in all other fields,” said Said Naciri, president of Wydad Casablanca, the reigning CAF Champions League holders (CAF is the African Football Association). “In Africa, when you want to go to a match, you have to think of so many things — like where do I stay, and how to stay there — from the moment you get off the plane. It is time to make a change. We must change things in African football and the time is now. If we don’t start now, we will fall even farther behind. It might take time for us, but if we begin now, we will get there.”

Since the inception of the African club competitions in the 1960s, the difficulties of travel from one place to another in a continent with a dearth of flight connections make the task of participating in the competitions an extremely onerous one, with teams often traveling for days to honor match dates. Moreover, when they do finally arrive, the clubs are often subjected to gamesmanship by their opponents, creating rather hostile match environments.

Mohammed Meddeb, the president of the Tunisian club Esperance, four-time winners of the CAF Champions League, expressed his frustrations to New Lines about what they went through when they won their fourth, and last, African title in 2019.

“First, more than half of what we win in the Champions League goes as bonuses and allowances to the entire team. That’s a contractual obligation. To be able to win the Champions League, you have to be able to recruit top players. They come at a certain cost. And above all of that, we forget that Africa is a huge continent. We had, during the last campaign, to charter aircraft twice to certain venues. Each flight cost us more than $100,000. Remember that you only get $2.5 million for lifting the trophy.

“And above all of this, it seems that the major reward we get from CAF for all our efforts are fines for disciplinary reasons. This is really a source of frustration for us. And I believe that we are not the only club in Africa with these feelings.

“You must understand that a club that goes to the Champions League final in Africa is already exhausted, both physically and mentally. You play on pitches that should never be used for a competition of this magnitude. But the CAF representatives would tell you that those are the facilities available and there is nothing that can be done about them,” a frustrated Meddeb said.

These logistical problems raise serious question marks about the viability of CAF’s 24-team Africa Super League, which is supposed to take off in August 2023. The league will ostensibly offer $100 million in annual prize money for the clubs, with $11 million going to the winner, even though no details as to where the funding for the competition will come from have been disclosed by the continental governing body.

Joseph-Antoine Bell, the goalkeeper for Cameroon at the 1994 World Cup, was also a part of the Indomitable Lions team that became the first African side to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup, in Italy in 1990. 32 years later, no African team has yet broken that barrier, though both Senegal and Ghana equalled it, in 2002 and 2010, respectively.

To raise the standard of soccer on the continent and see an African team become a consistent power at the World Cup, Bell says the solution to the performance problem lies with the game’s governors. “Football does not begin with footballers. It begins with those that have responsibility for the governance of the game in the office. A footballer in Africa is not responsible for the pitches and stadia they play in. Others have the responsibility to think about these things and put the right things in place, so that we can produce high-quality players and teams that can compete at the World Cup.”

The Indomitable Lions’ exploits at the 1990 tournament, and the attendant “Indian summer” performance of Roger Milla, have marked the barrier at which the African game has been stuck for over three decades. Cameroon, the Central African country with the record number of World Cup qualifications for the continent — making its eighth appearance in Qatar — has only advanced to the knockout stages once, in 1990, in nearly four decades of participation.

“We have been living on the glory of what we did in 1990, without plotting a way on how to improve. As a result, we are now stuck in the past,” Bell told me. “At the 2010 World Cup, hosted in South Africa, we were told that it was Africa’s time to win the World Cup. What concrete thoughts were those opinions based on? Nothing serious. They were based on the comments of non-African people patronizing us, to make us feel good about ourselves. We have not been doing the work to take our teams to the level at which we want to see them.”

The 2018 World Cup served as a stinging reminder that African soccer is not just failing to perform at the global level but showing worrying signs of regression. In Russia, the entire African quintet failed for the first time since the 1982 tournament in Spain to get a single team to the knockout stages of the tournament.

“We cannot expect things to change, just because time is passing. It is what we do with the time that matters. As long as we don’t apply professionalism to how we manage our game, we should not expect improved results on the field,” Bell warns.

And it is no better off the field. The Confederation of African Football, CAF, the body responsible for the organization of the continental game, is in dire financial straits. The organization recorded a $45 million deficit in its accounts for the 2020-2021 financial year, with no audited accounts for the following 2021-2022 financial year. No one truly knows the accurate state of the organization’s finances.

According to a source within the organization, the current CAF administration, led by South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe, allegedly inherited $38 million in unpaid invoices when Motsepe took up the presidency in March 2021. This clearly indicates the extremely poor health of the CAF.

Andrew Kamanga, president of the Football Association of Zambia, and a chartered accountant, is a member of CAF’s Finance Committee. He minces no words about its poor health. “CAF is facing an existential financial crisis and we face grave danger if we do not take prompt remedial measures to arrest it. When an organization faces a financial crisis, you have two options to get out of it — you either find a way to significantly increase your revenues or you find a way to dramatically reduce your costs,” he told me. “I suggested a reduction in the size of the executive committee (which would have reduced costs by over $25 million over a four-year period), which was to have been discussed at the last CAF congress in Arusha, Tanzania. But this was, unfortunately, not accepted by the CAF secretariat, even for a discussion.”

The poor financial state of CAF is directly related to the ill-advised decision in 2019 by Ahmad Ahmad, the previous president of the organization, and his executive committee, to unilaterally terminate its marketing contract with Lagardere Sports and Entertainment, a French sports marketing company. The contract had guaranteed CAF a minimum of $1 billion in income between 2017 and 2028, with CAF projected to receive as much as $300 million in excess of the minimum guarantee.

Ahmad’s argument was that the contract, which he alleged was signed in breach of Egyptian competition law (despite the fact CAF is a transnational nongovernmental sports organization and not an Egyptian company) was not in the financial interest of the organization and was lopsided in favour of the French company, as a result of the incompetence of the previous CAF administration, led by the Cameroonian Issa Hayatou. But no credible evidence was adduced by Ahmad to buttress these claims.

The decision to sign the contract with Lagardere, during the 29-year presidential tenure of Hayatou, was informed by the checkered financial history of the organization that Hayatou inherited when he took over in 1988. With reportedly less than $500,000 when he took the reins, Hayatou left a bank balance of nearly $150 million when he left in 2017, in addition to the billion-dollar minimum income from Lagardere, which guaranteed financial stability to pay their staff, fund their development programs and tournament expenses, as well as pay an annual subvention to its 54-member associations.

Since 2019, CAF has been unable to replace the guaranteed income that Lagardere was to give it, putting the financial future of the organization in an extremely precarious state as it struggles to meet its aforementioned obligations.

As Motsepe confessed at a press conference during a visit to Algeria: “CAF does not have any money.”

With Lagardere suing CAF for the unilateral breach of contract that has cost it over $100 million in contract commissions, and a high likelihood, according to legal experts, that the French company will win the case and possibly bankrupt CAF, a ticking legal time bomb has been set off in the house of African soccer.

But in the month that the World Cup is played in Qatar, that is hardly on the minds of the ordinary African fan. What they want to see is an African team reach the semifinals or finals. And as historic and desirable as such an achievement would be, even a feat like an African team winning the World Cup in Qatar would simply mask the rather precarious state African soccer is in.

It is, without doubt, a disturbing irony. But it is the unvarnished reality.

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