Ever since the Africa Super League was first announced as a serious proposal for the continent, a lack of concrete information around the idea generated a vacuum in which hopes and fears for the future of African sport were allowed to percolate.
Wednesday’s 44th CAF General Assembly in Arusha, Tanzania, which included the formal launching of the Super League, featured an address from Confederation of African Football and FIFA presidents Dr Patrice Motsepe and Gianni Infantino, as they elaborated on the details of a project that promises to reshape the continent’s football.
Even the announcement itself was billed — by Motsepe — as “the most important intervention to the development and advancement of football in Africa,” yet the unveiled proposals lead to yet more questions and concerns about the viability of the proposal.
Who’s going to pay for all this, though?
First of all, the motivation behind the project is to generate more money for African football — this had been no secret, and was reaffirmed again at Wednesday’s launch.
“Football is about finance,” Motsepe announced. “It is about having a product and the commercial backing for it. The success of club football is based on commercial viability.”
Motsepe alluded both to the struggles some clubs face currently in negotiating the costs of travelling across the continent to fulfil CAF fixtures, as well as how African sides are short-changed when they trade players to European clubs for modest transfer fees, only for the buying club then to move them on for a significant profit.
They’re two areas he hopes will be resolved by the revenue generated by and the visibility of the Super League.
On paper, the strategy makes sense: neither the existing CAF competitions nor Africa’s domestic leagues — with some exceptions — have the revenue-generating models to compete with other areas of the world game. But the attraction of a new elite product — the Super League — could prompt investors, sponsors and broadcasters to plough money into the continental game like never before.
Motsepe’s numbers are certainly eye-watering. He revealed that each of the 24 teams to make the group stage of the competition will receive $2.5 million each, while the winners will pocket $11.6 million from a pot of $100 million prize money — an almost tenfold increase on the prize money currently distributed among the 64 participants in the CAF Champions League.
Each of the 54 national federations will receive $1 million, while a further $50 million will be put into the CAF development fund from the estimated $200 million revenue.
Even without discussing prize money for defeated finalists, semi-finalists, and so on, the projections are significant — although both Motsepe and Infantino are reliant on the investment coming from somewhere. Exactly where, remains a mystery, with details about the origins of the funds required to fuel this project yet to be revealed.
Skepticism is rife, with Thulaganyo Gaoshubelwe, President of the South African Football Players Union, telling ESPN: “We already have the CAF Champions League and the Confed Cup, why are they not attracting finance…
“Is there is this magic wand and you have these people overnight who will be pumping money into the continent to grow football?
“Where is this money coming from?”
It certainly won’t come from CAF’s existing coffers — the organisation revealed a further reduction in their capital during the latest budgets — although Motsepe insists that “the investors have all shown a huge amount interest and enthusiasm to be part of this project.” But no actual money.
Will the ASL avoid Europe’s biggest mistakes?
Critically, Infantino and Motsepe must ensure the Africa Super League succeeds where the European breakaway version — announced by 12 clubs in April 2021 — failed before it got out of the blocks.
The FIFA president must surely be aware that the European giants’ hopes for a league of their own won’t just go away despite the failure of last spring’s attempted revolution.
A Super League will likely come to Europe one day, and the head of world football’s governing body must machinate all he can to ensure that it falls within FIFA’s governance, FIFA’s control and FIFA’s structures.
Should a FIFA-driven Africa Super League succeed — at least commercially — then he has the blueprint of a product which he can attempt to introduce in other markets. The European clubs can have their wish, and FIFA can share in the revenues.
One of the primary concerns of the European version — something which was definitively addressed on Wednesday — was the elitism of a ‘closed shop’ in which teams are guaranteed of their places, and those who are not included cannot hope to one day partake in the riches.
It was something that Motsepe and Infantino were keen to address, and is a pitfall that they have avoided. The Super League will not be an entirely ‘closed shop’, at least not on paper.
So, 21 of the 24 initial qualifiers will be allocated based on the five-year CAF club rankings, giving teams competing in the Champions League and the Confederation Cup time to boost their ranking, with three ‘wild card’ slots allocated based on the size/scale/sustainability of a club also making the opening round.
CAF still appear to be stacking the deck in favour of the continent’s biggest football brands, but they are insulating themselves against criticism that the tournament is ‘for the few’. CAF can rightly claim that — theoretically — any team in the continent could muscle their way into the Super League.
However, how this works in practice, particularly when some teams within nations will be on the receiving end of consistent, considerable windfalls, remains to be seen.
We know that the tournament will consist of three eight-team regionalised groups (the regions are yet to be identified) with the top five teams in each group and the best placed sixth placed team advancing to the knockouts and a Last 16 stage.
It’s hard to evaluate exactly how inclusive, representative and elite the tournament will truly prove to be, although the Confederation have confirmed that no nation can have more than three teams in the competition, while each of the three groups must represent a minimum of four countries.
Ironically, this could skew the tournament against the stronger North African teams, who would need to have representation from at least four of the five countries in the region — but no more than three from each country — in their opening eight-team group.
Considering 16 of the continent’s top 28 ranked clubs are currently from North Africa, it means a lot of big boys will miss out.
Ok, but what happens to current tournaments?
The tournament, which will consist of up to 197 matches and run from August to May, will conclude with a Super Bowl-style final to crown the inaugural winner.
The CAF Champions League will remain — although it’s has been converted into a straight knockout competition and its exact role within the structure hasn’t been explained — while the Confederation Cup will still exist, although in a regionalised supporting role, providing qualifiers for the Super League.
The sheer volume of fixtures ASL clubs will have to contend with — CAF documentation indicates a maximum of 21 new matches — is also a concern for Gaoshubelwe.
“Nobody has spoken about the issue of the schedule for the players, nobody spoke about fatigue,” he continued.
“It’s unsustainable, in terms of the schedule of the players, over and above the local cups. As is, we have a hectic [schedule] and you want the players to do that. It’s absurd.”
Finally, while CAF’s motivations and initiatives may be well placed, the lack of consultation among African football bodies means that many remain unconvinced by the appetite for a Super League.
There are also concerns about what such potential inequalities of wealth may mean for existing soccer structures on the continent.
“How is the South African league going to relate to the Super League? How is the Super League going to relate to the leagues on the continent?” asked Gaoshubelwe.
“CAF was not willing to consult – broadly – with the clubs, nor with the players.
“The teams will have resources — huge deep pockets — to buy any other player that they want [from their domestic league] thereby not really empowering the local league.
“In the long run, [the other teams] have no chance. What are the chances of these small teams participating? It’s doomed.”
The Super League edges ever closer for Africa, and while it surely is a proposal that will transform the continent’s football, it remains to be seen whether it will be changed for the better.
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