The year is 2029. It is the final of the Huawei African Super League, and Al Ahly of Egypt are playing Orlando Pirates of South Africa. The new football competition replaced the old Confederation of African Football’s Champions League in 2024 after years of wrangling over format. The final is broadcast live across Africa’s 54 nations and the winning team — Orlando Pirates after a thrilling 3-2 win in extra time — takes home $40m in prize money.
This may all seem far-fetched, especially the victory of Orlando Pirates, who have not won Africa’s real top club competition since 1995. But the idea of a strong, prosperous African Super League has been gaining traction — at least until the would-be European Super League spectacularly self-immolated last month after a fans’ revolt.
An overhaul of African football is needed, even if a Super League is not the answer. Fans are praying that Patrice Motsepe, elected president of the CAF in March, can restore credibility after a run of grubby scandals.
The first task of the South African mining billionaire and club owner is to negotiate a new television deal after a 12-year, $1bn agreement with Lagardère Sports, a French media company, was terminated in 2019 over an alleged breach of competition rules. Beyond that, there is a bigger task of professionalising a sport whose economics mirror those of the continent.
Many African nations are blessed with prodigious footballing talent. Yet like other resources — copper, gold or cobalt — the best way to turn that “raw material” into money is to extract it from Africa. Brian Wesaala, a businessman who champions putting African football on a more sustainable footing, calls it “muscle drain” — the sporting equivalent of Sudanese doctors staffing the British NHS or Nigerian entrepreneurs running foreign companies.
Europe’s wealthy football clubs have busily mined African skills. Egypt’s Mo Salah fronts Liverpool, Inter Milan’s Achraf Hakimi, a Moroccan, is one of the top defenders in Europe, and Senegal’s Sadio Mané, another Liverpool star, has an estimated transfer value of $140m. They follow great African players of the past such as Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Okocha and George Weah, a man whose brilliance on the pitch outshone his current performance as Liberia’s president.
Luring footballers with big salaries is not as bad as extracting unprocessed raw materials. African players send money home and people from Algeria to Nigeria watch their heroes competing in the best leagues in the world.
Still, that leaves African clubs denuded of top talent and struggling financially. Many grounds are shoddy and smaller clubs strain to pay wages. Even for bigger teams, the economics don’t always add up. Last month, Orlando Pirates flew to Benghazi for a game in the Confederation Cup. The flight from South Africa to Libya went via Paris and Tunis and cost 30,000 rand ($2,150) a ticket. Instead of being a money-spinner, such competitions are ruinously expensive for many clubs.
An African Super League with permanent members immune from relegation is not an answer. As in Europe, such a competition would be sterile and confer financial advantage on certain clubs in perpetuity.
One solution is to improve the quality of the African Champions League, in which 64 clubs compete from 54 countries. The television offer should be polished by standardising often poor-quality broadcasts. More money from rights should be ploughed back into grassroots football and better stadiums.
As in politics, those who run football should govern in the interests of the sport and society, not line their pockets. And as in economics, the aim should be to raise the value, both economic and sporting, that stays in Africa. That would be a goal worth celebrating.