The most important development in African soccer taking place this year might not be the World Cup in South Africa — despite its successful staging (oh, yeah, it seems to have turned out that Cabinda is not in South Africa) — argues Paul Doyle in an excellent Guardian piece on domestic African leagues, specifically, the possibility that Kenya might be leading the way with new leadership in the Kenyan Premier League:
Africa is a football-mad continent but has only ever sent three teams to the World Cup quarter-finals. It had six sides at the 2010 tournament but mustered only four wins – the strong showing of Ghana, a country with a good FA and innovative clubs, cannot mask the general trend of underachievements, including by Cameroon and Nigeria, countries who boast bountiful talent but finished bottom of their groups. When it comes to African football, tales of corruption, incompetence and infighting remain more common than success stories.
“Too many national associations are failing African football,” Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations, says. “We cannot have strong national teams without strong leagues but we do not have strong leagues because too often the associations are run by the wrong people, people who get involved for politics or money, not for football. Until we sort ourselves out, we will have the same old circus.”
To tackle this, Doyle explains, the Kenyan Premier League was formed, and significantly, it is owned and run by the 16 Kenyan clubs themselves.
The KPL represents a great example of African football sorting itself out, a successful rebellion by people who genuinely care about football against the powerful people seeking to hijack it for their own ends. Over the past decade the hijacking has at times been so blatant as to be farcical – an investigation into corruption in the Kenya Football Federation (KFF) in 2005 found that from the first eight matches played by the national team following the arrival of a new president “there was not a single penny banked by the treasurer as proceeds from gate receipts”. There were also reports of top KFF officials acting as unregistered agents to sell players abroad and embezzling funds given by Fifa. Even 30 computers donated by Fifa disappeared.
Kenya’s clubs, sick of being hindered rather than helped by their federation, began agitating for reform and, in the face of repeated sabotage and intimidation by the KFF, eventually took over the running of the domestic league, forming, in 2008, the country’s first professional league, the KPL, and only the second one in the continent, after the South African Super League, to be owned entirely by clubs.
“When you have a company that owns the league and the 16 clubs are equal shareholders and equal decision‑makers, then you automatically have three things,” Bob Munro, chairman of Mathare United and a KPL official, says.
“First, you have complete accountability, because you basically have 16 auditors as every shilling that comes in belongs to the clubs together and they sit and decide how best to allocate it – how much goes to the clubs, how much to a common pool for staff, referees, marketing and so on. Secondly, you have complete transparency because there are no secrets when there are 16 owners. And, thirdly, you automatically have fair play – if any official or referee tries to favour one club, the 15 others will fire them. Fair play, financial accountability and democratic transparency, that’s all you need to have good football management.”
At the end of the piece, though, Doyle raises a point that is worth considering further in global terms: when politicians attempt to stamp down on corruption within the national associations that run the sport, should they always automatically be chastised and threatened with a ban from international competition by FIFA?
Doyle raises this point with regard to the much-mocked move by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan two weeks ago to wipe clean the slate in Nigerian soccer by banning the national team from play.
But, as this BBC article explains, this was not simply a populist move by Jonathan; he was attempting to deal with a serious crisis in the institutions of soccer in Nigeria, run not for the good of the game but with a strong whiff of corruption pervading the air.
The actual banning and un-banning of the team is irrelevant,” says Churchill Olise, owner of elite football academy Ebede FC in Shagamu.
“What matters is that at last the powerful have realised the seriousness of our problem.
“Sport is the one area where we can compete internationally – and win. We simply cannot continue to waste our young talent.”
In theory, an abundance of gifted young players ought to make Nigeria a global super-power in the game.
But insiders point to squandered talent, a national sport strangled by poor infrastructure, and football officials obsessed by gaining re-election for themselves. There is also evidence of corruption.
“The sackings just scratch the surface,” says Wilson Ajua, a lawyer and owner of Rainbow FC in Lagos.
“The president should take it further. The structures must be cleaned out and rebuilt.”
He points to problems deeper than corruption.
“Many of these local clubs are like empty shells without good players,” he says.
“I believe the state of football in Nigeria is dead. The clubs are run as political tools, not as businesses.”
Jonathan’s extreme action suddenly made more sense just days ago when it came to light FIFA had been warned the Nigerian team was “at risk” of involvement in match-fixing; and, as Declan Hill discussed, this will continue to be the case when players are not paid for their participation in the World Cup directly, but often see their money disappear into the pockets of corrupt national officials (this, incidentally, doesn’t only happen in Africa). Significantly, Jonathan’s more important action was not the headline-move of banning the national team, but his demand that the Nigerian Football Federation be dissolved and its books opened to anti-fraud police.
Jonathan had to back down from his action when FIFA intervened. But the idea brought up above by Olise that Jonathan did not go far enough as the entire sport’s infrastructure needed cleaning out raises a serious question: who, exactly, is going to be able to clean out a corrupt or incompetent national association of a sport if a national government is not allowed by FIFA to do it? FIFA, obviously, does not do it. And once entrenched, changing the guard at national association level from the grassroots up is extremely difficult. Isn’t it, indeed, in part the responsibility of national governments to ensure their national associations of their national sports are following good governance principles?
That, at least, is the conclusion of Doyle’s insightful piece. In Kenya, he observes, while the national league appears to have enlightened leadership, no such change has taken place at national league level, with the existing dubious leadership of Football Kenya Limited still in place, despite the urging of reform from the national government:
This week Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, requested that the FKL step aside and let clubs vote for new officials. It was only a request, mind, because Odinga knows that any more forceful move by him would incur the wrath of Fifa, who are fundamentalists when it comes to upholding their ban on governmental interference in football – sometimes with the effect that they prevent reform.
And as he quotes Elias Makori, sports editor of Kenya’s biggest newspaper The Nation:
“What Fifa needs to do is stop insisting on no government interference and instead insist on good governance,” Makori says. “It needs to help the right people and thwart the opportunists by drawing up a model constitution for all its associations and demanding that it is respected. If the status quo remains, it is hard not to be pessimistic.”
This is a brilliant suggestion by Makori, it seems to me; sure, it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to ensure model constitutions were implemented properly, but their mere existence — and an end to a blanket ban on government “interference” in soccer by FIFA — would set standards for each national association to be held up to by a country’s clubs, players, fans, regional confederation, FIFA and government officials alike. There is simply to much money in world soccer in every country, too many people involved, to simply trust a few officials to run the sport right with no serious system of standard principles and oversight to be in place for national associations.