It was the famous Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. who once opined that “It does not matter how long you live, but how well you do.” If this is to be considered a benchmark to judge the legacy of Issa Hayatou’s time as the President of Confederation of African Football (CAF), then it can only be regarded as a failure and utterly useless to African footballers too!
Serving as the President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) between 1988 and 2017 (a total of 29 years), Issa Hayatou did nothing of significant worth to upgrade the quality of football in Africa, neither did he create nor enhance a structure to emphasise the need for the world to regard African footballers as their true talents demand.
As much as due credit must be given for overseeing a successful increase in the number of African teams participating in the FIFA World Cup, still, so much more could have been achieved considering the number of years he gripped power and wasted resources and potential at the helm of affairs.
The most glaring effect of Hayatou’s lack of futuristic expansion, leadership and push for total inclusion of African football and its footballers is why several top teams-especially those in the top five European leagues rarely sign African players. I do not believe this is racially motivated as football has proven to be basically about winning titles and securing financial rewards.
The reason for this is not far from the fact that African footballers are called up by their respective National Teams to engage in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) usually slated for January (mid-season and a crucial time in the football league season-either taking the top teams closer to the brink of winning championships or seeing their hopes evaporate just as quickly as the fog in the face of the early morning sun).
Take this into sharp contrast with other international football confederations:
CONCACAF Gold Cup (North and Central America and The Caribbean): Summer.
OFC Nations Cup (Oceania): Held every four years. Summer.
CONMEBOL Copa América (South America): Held every four years. Summer.
UEFA European Championship (Europe): Held every four years. Summer.
CAF Africa Cup of Nations (Africa): Held during winter. And for equal mention, every two years.
So these questions beg to be asked: Why is the CAF Africa Cup of Nations the ‘only’ continental tournament being played mid-season? (The AFC Cup is played in the winter too, but it is not in doubt that the weather would be so unbearable for all participants during the summer. Same reason why there is still an ongoing debate about Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup). Why hasn’t the limiting factor of this football schedule been studied and found to directly affect the profiles and chances of the African footballers who are potential participants in it to be signed by the biggest club sides? Why didn’t Issa Hayatou see the need for this schedule to be scrapped? Why would clubs interested in competing for domestic and continental titles stick their necks out, risking both financial and championship chances, to sign African players knowing it has every potential to backfire?
This is the failure of Issa Hayatou’s legacy and will continue to be.
I mean, for someone who spent 29 years as the head of CAF, member of the FIFA executive committee, Vice-President of FIFA Committee for Security and Fair-Play (still serving), member of the World Cup Organising Committee and even at one time (no matter how brief) served as the Acting President of FIFA between 2015-2016 (during the investigation of FIFA by the FBI leading to the suspension and ultimate expulsion of disgraced former President, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter), it is a disgrace that Hayatou could not fight for a reform to this timetable. Perhaps he simply saw no need for it. What a shame!
So how far has this singular failure cost African footballers so far? Let us see.
With the notable exception of a coach like José Mourinho who has signed African footballers at all the clubs he has coached-all regarded as “big clubs” based on UEFA coefficients, same cannot be said of other coaches or clubs in the same positions of financial strength and global brand appeal. It was alleged that this singular factor of making African footballers the ‘core’ players around whom teams were built and having to deal with losing them for the one-month mid-season absence AFCON enforces was a major deterrent to Sir Alex Ferguson signing African footballers as the coach of Manchester United. Who would blame him? Who wants to have their star player missing several crucial matches especially during the most important, transitional period of the regular season?
Liverpool were on the wrong side of this issue in 2016. They won only one of the seven matches Senegalese forward Sadio Mané missed (due to his participation at Gabon 2017), including getting dumped out of both the EPL Cup semi-final by Southampton and a humiliating FA Cup loss to Wolves. This was the same season he was voted as Liverpool’s player of the season.
Do you see my point yet?
When Jürgen Klopp added Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah to Liverpool’s playing staff this summer, there was considerable fear of the same debilitating issue from last season playing out again. How long until Klopp goes the way of other coaches in deciding that African footballers, especially the elite talents, aren’t worth the trouble that AFCON winter engagement brings?
Today, it is not surprising that all top four clubs in the top five leagues in Europe are reluctant to sign up proven quality, super-talented African footballers like current African Player of the Year and 2015 EPL Player of the Year, Leicester’s attacking midfield force Riyad Mahrez, or Bundesliga goal king and former African Player of the Year, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. How about the Ayew brothers, Brahimi, Slimani, Musa, Enyeama, kameni, Onazi, Wanyama, Bolasie, Zaha, Aboubakar etc.?
Who are the African footballers plying their trades with the Madrids, Barcelonas, Atleticos, Juventus’, Bayerns and Chelseas of this world? Is anyone surprised that Barcelona pulled out in the last minute from completing a deal for Nice’s Ivorian central midfielder Jean Michaël Seri? Or that even with Mahrez and Aubameyang both indicating interests to move to ‘bigger’ clubs, no ‘big’ club has come calling?
Even in cases where the ‘big’ clubs move in to secure the signature of African footballers, the knowledge that they would likely miss the crucial month of January (which coincides with the January transfer window) always means other footballers are brought in as well to cover for them. This eventually pushes these African footballers down the perking order of “starting eleven” or worse, get them shown the door out of the club. Wonder why Kelechi Iheanacho couldn’t hold down a spot in Manchester City’s team even though he had the best goal ratio in the history of the English Premier League (according to OptaJoe), or has the skillset of fellow contemporaries like Asensio, Gabriel Jesus, Sterling, Pulisic, Martial or Mbappe, yet no other ‘big club’ snapped him up, which allowed Leicester City to sign him? You only have to take a look at next January’s AFCON.
It’s a shame and I can only lay this gargantuan failure at the feet of Issa Hayatou’s 29 wasted years.
So, how do we deal with this madness?
Considering that the format and the timing for hosting AFCON is probably not going to change anytime soon-as the powers that be at CAF are so myopic to even realise the correlation between how it’s timing affects the representation of African footballers in the bigger leagues and club sides- I see us stuck in this unpleasant, talent-limiting, experience – de-basing quagmire for a long time to come. But we must act.
Therefore, CAF must petition FIFA to change the football calendar which makes AFCON to be played in the January (mid-season) to now be played in the summer-just like the rest of the confederations. If it is not accepted, its African footballers must stop engaging in this madness (PS: wonder why the flip side to not honouring National Team calls is both a fine and a ban for the player and his club). I see no reason why professional African footballers should continue to participate in this charade. If FIFA did care about AFCON, this tournament would have been rescheduled since ages past. I sincerely believe that FIFA or Barcelona would never allow Lionel Messi to miss a month of the regular season playing in an international competition that should ‘originally’ be slated for the summer. Even FIFA, UEFA and La Liga all know they cannot risk the financial/goodwill repercussions and back-lashes from such a terrible decision if one was ever made. Same goes for CONCACAF, CONMEBOL or UEFA.
So why CAF? Why African footballers?
The real change must begin by scrapping this crazy mid-season AFCON. It is killing African footballers and their chances of playing for the biggest football clubs in the world.
Let’s see how Ahmad Ahmad fares.
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