CAF President Patrice Motsepe | Credit: John Batanudde

CAF recently announced plans to start a Super League, with the inaugural season set to kick off in August 2023. According to reports from CAF, the tournament is set to start with 24 clubs from 16 countries, with over USD 200 Million set to be injected into the tournament,  25% of this going to women’s and youth football development. The winner of the tournament is set to walk away with USD 11.5 Million which is much more than the current prize money given to the winner of the African  Champions League. In addition, all CAF member associations will receive USD  1 Million for football development.

The realization of the CAF Super League project is a stark contrast to the failed European Super League (ESL) project which hit a snag after it received wide criticism from a number of stakeholders across European football. This, therefore, raises the worthwhile debate to interrogate the premature failure of the ESL  project on one hand and the subsequent rise CAF Super League on the other hand.

At the onset, it is important to understand that the ESL project was initiated by a section of big European clubs with the project receiving deep resistance from UEFA and FIFA who have both argued that the tournament would be a violation of football governing statutes in as far as it usurps the latter’s powers to organize and regulate football competitions. This led to the subsequent litigation between the parties and they now await the determination of their case by the European Court of Justice. On the other hand, the CAF Super League has been purposively promoted by CAF and FIFA.  

To an innocent follower, it might be surprising that FIFA joined UEFA to challenge the ESL project but joined hands with the CAF to promote the  African Super League. A rational guess to this question is that there is a growing commercial appetite on the global scene for more football content which has pitted different stakeholders against each other in the run to fill up this space, a case in point being the altercation between UEFA and FIFA against the promoters of the ESL project.

Back to the CAF Super League, when the tournament was launched by CAF in  August 2022 in Tanzania, there were a lot of questions raised about the practical realities of the league but CAF provided very few answers.

Dr. Patrice Motsepe and gianni Infatino | Credit: CAF

First, is the question of composition. As mentioned earlier at least 16 countries will be represented in the African SuperLeague (that is about 29% of the continent’s 54 states) however concerns still remain about how these 16 countries will be determined and the criteria to be followed. One of the major criticisms presented against the ESL project was its attempt to create a “closed shop” tournament for some of Europe’s elite clubs.

In Europe, these issues triggered the philosophical debate of  “meritocracy in sports”. Meritocracy is understood as the idea that everyone is responsible for their efforts, talents, and abilities and that people should achieve what they can by using all these elements. This is a dominant social justice argument of our time and it informs the legitimacy with which people trust public systems, this also equally applies to sports. Micheal Sandel, one of the most prominent philosophers of our time, points out that sport has become the greatest mass spectacle in the modern world because it offers a  chance to see meritocracy in action.  

This was part of the argument that was levelled against the ESL project as it was put forward that the tournament would in part be closed for some elite  European clubs. The criticism was that the right to compete with international elite competition must be earned on the field of play by qualifying through domestic leagues and as such assuring a competitive privilege to members of a closed group is unfair. A closed tournament had the potential of erasing away the possibility of fairytale club stories which has always been synonymous with elite European football, for instance, the recent exploits of  FC Sheriff Tiraspol from Moldova in the 2021/2022 UEFA Champions League would have no place in ESL as it had been packaged. 

In contrast to the ESL Project, CAF has proposed that there will be a provision for relegation and promotion in the CAF Super League. This appears to be a  progressive response by FIFA and CAF who appear to have learnt a lesson from the backlash received by the promoters of the ESL project.  It remains to be seen how these permutations will influence CAF’s subsequent decision on the criteria of qualification to this new tournament format.

The CAF Super League is being promoted by CAF on the basis that it shall provide a platform for the wholesome development of African club football given CAF’s guaranteed investment. It is assumed that African clubs shall be afforded the means of retaining their quality players instead of selling them to overseas clubs. Secondly, it is assumed that the tournament will create a competitive sporting spectacle that will attract passionate interest from fans across the continent.  

However, in reality, these assumptions will be put to a test. First, most African clubs operate as a chain system by which they identify fresh talent through their academy structures with the hope of preparing them for the overseas market in Europe, many clubs in Africa look at CAF club competitions as a platform for exposure and a springboard for the young players in their ranks. In practice there is a lot of player flight among African players, players travel frequently to seek contracts aboard and across borders. In recent times, player movement across the continent has also increased with many players from sub-Saharan Africa seeking lucrative deals with clubs in North Africa which partly justifies the dominance of North African clubs in CAF competitions. It remains to be seen whether the projected investment by CAF will progressively influence these clubs to change their objectives.  

On the broadcasting front, the success of the tournament shall depend on  CAF’s ability to attain a commercially viable broadcasting agreement. In the past CAF has struggled to attain favorable broadcasting agreements for its various club competitions. CAF earns peanuts in terms of broadcasting revenue compared to UEFA thus striking a good broadcasting agreement shall be instrumental in making the CAF Super League success for CAF and the clubs.  

CAF will also have to contend with finding a solution to fixing its own club football calendar with the introduction of the CAF Super League as the CAF Champions League, and CAF Confederations Cup will continue. This presents an organizational handicap to CAF as it is required to now prepare a practicable calendar fixture to cater for all three tournaments and onto the clubs, they have to contend with assembling large squads to play in all these tournaments given the fact that some clubs are set to participate in more than one continental tournament. It remains to be seen how clubs will handle playing in two continental competitions, in addition to playing in the domestic league in the same calendar season. This will imply an increase in expenditure and in case of poor planning and clubs might suffer from long-term economic challenges similar to those encountered by European clubs in circumstances where their expenditures exceed their income, mischief which UEFA fair play rules came to cure. Currently, CAF does not have similar rules and it remains to be seen how CAF will overcome such risks or whether it shall leave it all to the clubs.

African clubs competing in the current continental club tournaments endure expensive budgets with items like travel across the continent presenting a humongous strain on club expenditure. The challenges of air travel in Africa will continue to press a strain on the clubs since they have to contend with an expanded travel schedule. The addition of another tournament has come with promises of strong economic incentives but it remains to be seen how in reality this shall have a trickle-down impact on the clubs in order to lessen this baggage of expenditure.  

The CAF Super League has been presented with a lot of promises of hope for the African football fraternity but there are sound reasons for the pessimists about the overall project.

However, there is no doubt that African club football is desperate for an uplift given the high standards that have been set by other continents. The CAF Super League avails an opportunity to improve the brand of continental club football but it remains to be seen how  CAF will navigate through the challenges presented to achieve its goal.

Leave a comment

Please let us know what you think