Finbarr Toesland: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 October 2023:
Morocco became the first African country to reach the World Cup semifinals last year, proof that the continent cultivates world-class talent. Morocco’s remarkable success in 2022 stretched beyond just the men’s national team.
Unlike the European football clubs and leagues that currently dominate the billion dollar game in both investments and competitions, African football has far less money for vital operations.
European football clubs collectively raise billions of dollars selling television rights to broadcasters, signing sponsorship deals and selling merchandise. They then use a portion of this income to scout for and sign up talented players and develop the next generation of top-level athletes.
Africa accounts for only one per cent, or $300 million, of the world’s overall sponsorship funding, according to Statista.
Building infrastructure, rebuilding trust
Globally, the football industry does not operate in isolation. It needs reliable and functioning infrastructure, major financial investment, high levels of integrity and a strong commitment to cultivating new players and fans. These are essential for long-term success of any football ecosystem.
The African football ecosystem faces two core challenges in competing with European leagues.
First, many African countries lack the financial muscle to build necessary infrastructure, such as stadiums, training facilities and reliable transportation, according to Jean-Philippe Dubois, marketing director of Samba Digital, an international sports marketing agency with a presence in Africa.
“African football clubs often struggle with funding, with many clubs relying on government subsidies or donations from wealthy individuals. This lack of investment can limit the quality of facilities, equipment and coaching available to players,” he said.
By building the suitable capacity and improving the quality of professionals managing the sport right from the grassroots, Africa will also mitigate corruption and mismanagement, which is severely hindering football development in the region.
Second, corruption is a pressing concern for the sport, with regular allegations of match fixing, bribery and mismanagement of funds. “This has led to a lack of trust and transparency within the football ecosystem, which can deter fans, investors and sponsors from getting involved,” Dubois added.
Kelvin Omuojine, principal associate at SportHouse LP — a Nigerian sports law firm — also believes that the industry’s weak governance system is preventing it from reaching its full potential in Africa.
“This is a combination of administrative failures on the part of the national football governing bodies themselves as well as ineffective means, whether internal or external, of ensuring that standards such as transparency, accountability and administrative efficiency are met,” said Omuojine.
While the European football governance system is far from perfect, Omuojine points to its relative efficiency as a major benefit that can help bring reform when needed. “In Africa, until football is governed in a transparent manner and embraces commercialization, the gap is likely to remain,” he added.
Making the FIFA Final Four
Morocco made history in 2022 when it became the first African country to reach the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA) World Cup semifinals, showing the world that African national football teams can compete on a global pitch.
For Brian Wesaala, founder of the Football Foundation for Africa, a social enterprise working to create jobs by increasing investment in grassroots development, Morocco’s success is undoubtedly a positive sign for African football. The continent has only to tap its wealth of talent.
“Football can be a powerful tool for promoting economic development, as it can create jobs, attract investment and generate revenue for local businesses.
However, Wesaala believes that one success does not necessarily mean that the entire African football sector is ready to compete globally.
“Morocco has invested heavily for over 15 years in an initiative led by its ruler committed to sports and youth development,” he explained. Such investment “ensures that national football professionals have all the conditions for success. What Morocco has done ‘behind the scenes’ should be emulated across the continent to take African football to a new level.”
In practice, those in the business of football in Africa should foster a more sustainable environment, providing funding for sports management education and expanding research into business models that work for the continent’s football clubs and players.
“By building the suitable capacity and improving the quality of professionals managing the sport right from the grassroots, Africa will also mitigate corruption and mismanagement, which is severely hindering football development in the region,” said Wesaala.
Putting inclusive and equitable structures in place
Of course, the development of Africa’s football ecosystem will have a greater impact if its developers deliberately link its success to the continent’s wider economic progress.
“Football can be a powerful tool for promoting economic development, as it can create jobs, attract investment and generate revenue for local businesses,” said Dubois of the sports marketing agency Samba Digital. “However, if this growth is not shared fairly, it can exacerbate existing inequalities and leave many people behind.”
Engaging local businesses during the development of new football-related infrastructure or working with communities on football training programmes can help to support all stakeholders.
Dubois gave the example of building new stadiums, which creates jobs in construction and other industries, while improving training facilities to develop local talent and create opportunities for young people.
“Linking footballing success with wider economic progress can help to promote social cohesion and reduce inequality,” Dubois said. “By investing in football and other sports, governments and communities can bring people together and promote shared values and aspirations.”
That sounds like a winning move for Africa’s football clubs, players and fans.