A couple of weeks ago, a social media post indicated that a continent-wide African Super League for soccer was under construction. On the surface, notwithstanding the complex logistics, Africa is a prime candidate for such a venture. There is, though, always a below the surface. The New York Times’ Rory Smith (RS) speaks to Tariq Panja (TP) about the idea. We publish excerpts from the New York Times.
RS: The basic idea strikes me as sound. Certainly south of the Sahara, African club soccer struggles horribly for investment. That means that the vast majority of nations that produce a constant stream of players for European clubs rarely see any of that talent on show in domestic leagues. That, in turn, hardly entices fans to go and watch games live. And that completes a vicious circle, because it means that, yes, clubs struggle horribly for investment.
A Super League would address some of those issues. A better television deal, if nothing else, would enable clubs to invest in infrastructure. That might help nurture young talent and keep it for a little longer. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that a Pan-African league might be able to rival one of the talent-generating leagues in Europe — the Netherlands or Portugal, say — for quality in a relatively short space of time.
Of course, there is one thorny issue that I haven’t yet had the nerve to bring up. I reckon I could come up with a fairly cogent list of 20 or so African teams that would have a good case for inclusion, thanks to history or support or location. But I am guessing that Infantino and CAF, which is now run by a staunch ally of his, might have a different system in mind?
TP: There are ways of trying to come up with likely participants. You could use the CAF club coefficient, which is essentially a points system for clubs in the region based on their historic success. But that would mean a league dominated by clubs from wealthier North African countries, with only a dozen or so of the continent’s 54 countries likely to be represented.
RS: That lack of representation would, I think, ultimately be unavoidable. For a tournament like this to be valid, there are certain clubs that would have to be included. Al Ahly and Zamalek from Cairo, would be names one and two. Both Raja and Wydad from Casablanca, and Esperance and Étoile du Sahel, the twin totems of Tunisian soccer.
You would certainly need South Africa’s Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. And you could throw Mamelodi Sundowns in there, too: It is owned by Patrice Motsepe, Infantino’s ally and the new CAF president. Simba, of Tanzania, clearly expect to be involved. TP Mazembe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, would have to be.
Beyond that, the continent’s powerhouse nations — Cameroon, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and, particularly, Nigeria — would command at least one place each. Suddenly, the whole thing looks pretty full, even before thinking about Angola, Sudan and Ethiopia.
TP: If there was a method to wrap this league into the existing pyramid, there would probably be far more buy-in. The idea that teams from across the region would have — at least in theory — a shot at one day making it into the competition would make the proposition far more palatable to those, even among the larger clubs, who are not enthused about it.
Even then, there are the logistics of it: not only to create a level playing field, but a sensible calendar and schedule, given the enormous differences in weather and transport infrastructure across the region. Given the uncertainty and sense of unease among the African football community, there needs to be an urgent and transparent discussion about what this is, and what this is not. A series of clandestine meetings followed by a high-profile announcement that does not stand up to scrutiny is not enough.