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The Havard Conference – player-power!

I accepted to be a panelist at the African Business Club conference to discus the business of football in Africa because I knew I was…

I accepted to be a panelist at the African Business Club conference to discus the business of football in Africa because I knew I was going to learn from the process. I also knew that in looking at the football business in Africa, I would have to look at it first through the prism of my own personal experiences in Nigeria where I have been doing football business for the past two decades. If my experiences in Nigeria and researching how the football business is done elsewhere are anything to go by, my contributions at the conference would be very limited because the football business in Nigeria is yet to really take off. Be that as it may, the conference went even better than I thought.

So, I went, I saw and I conquered my initial fears that I would be intimidated by the depth of the conversations as well as the reputation of Havard. Both invigorated me as I settled down to look at the issues through the prism of Nigerian football. Every panelist did the same being more conversant with the state of the football business in the country of their operations. In the course of the conversation we all found out that in the global football business there are very many similarities in the challenges countries face.

Most African countries are working hard to improve their football standards and join in the ‘lucrative’ football business.

It goes without saying that the key to unlock the development of a viable football industry anywhere in the world is the Player. The most successful clubs in the world presently spend between 60 and 70 percent of their gross earnings on players’ wages and transfer fees. That’s where the bulk of football money goes. Africa must, therefore, continue to churn out exceptionally gifted players that will add their unique flavour to the global game so that the money may continue to flow in its direction. Many such players have graced the global football scene already, made their mark and set the stage for the football business to sprout in the African continent. The administrators did not latch onto the opportunities by creating a bridge to connect the achievements of the players abroad with the domestic clubs, the domestic leagues and even the national teams. Presently, the effect of African players is more to grow the football business in Europe where they play, and less in their own country where they come from. The impact must be extended to Africa and not necessarily shifted from Europe.

Meanwhile, the question is this: what are African countries doing to use player-power to drive the evolution of the football business in the continent?

There have been different applications. Egypt has been controlling the exodus of its young players abroad by legislating against it and by making their domestic league financially attractive to their local players (almost at same level with the lower rungs of European football). Cote D’Ivoire established a national football academy where its best discovered young talents were groomed and then sold to Europe (France in particular). Zaire took a very popular club to mega-status, attracted some of the best home-based players from different countries (mostly in Africa) to it, won the African Champions League and got to the finals of the World Club Cup. Cameroon, without facilities for training or matches of any serious sort in the country, has continued to encourage the migration of its mature talents to Europe, feeding back its national team, and using the products of this system to drive the business of its football from abroad! South Africa, with a very strong private sector, and a strategy of successfully hosting major international events, is attracting good foreign players from other African countries to its domestic league to grow it as well as the football business.

So, the modules for developing the football business in Africa through using player-power are many and varied.

What has been the effect of all these?

The sum total effect of all these applications is that no country in the continent has succeeded in developing a viable business model to meet global standards.

South Africa, presently with the 4th highest television deal in the world of football, is groping in the dark and pretending to be succeeding. Compared to the great South African teams and players of the mid-1990s, the country’s present standards in terms of quality of players and quality of football have dropped remarkably. The national team as well as the country’s many clubs are in an endless, fruitless struggle to win any trophy whatsoever in Africa. The empty terraces still in most of the domestic matches, except a few, tell the true and complete story.

Egypt that was succeeding with its keep-players-at-home-and-pay-them-well program a few years ago lost all the domestic African Club trophies and its national team could not even qualify for AFCON 2012 a few months ago.

Cameroun’s players, hewn under some of the harshest conditions you can imagine, seem not to have any new outstanding players coming through the country’s unorganised domestic football development structure. The country does not have even one good football training field or match venue. It, therefore, has no standard, well run football academies like Senegal or Cote D’Ivoire. It also has no major league or television sponsorship, only poorly funded clubs, and a national team that is fast losing its appetite to win.

The once-great innovative academies in Senegal and Cote D’Ivoire have emptied their bowels of their best young talents to the detriment of the domestic league that is now bereft of quality players to grow it and the football business.

The case of Nigeria is the most pathetic. 18 years after the country’s national team was ranked fifth in the world and declared the most entertaining team in the World Cup, the country’s production room of exceptionally gifted players has dried up. A country that produced 5 of Africa’s best footballers in 7 years has not been able to throw up any one in the past 10 years. In the year 2012 the country’s domestic football league has no major sponsor; it has no program to discover and groom talent; it has only mushroom academies running uncoordinated programmes; its best young talents are sold into ‘slavery’, prematurely leaving the country in droves and ending up in some obscure and cheap league somewhere; its home-based players, with average monthly salaries of between 200 and 300 US Dollars, are some of the least paid in the world. It is a horror story. It is no surprise that the terraces during most league matches are empty of spectators. Most playing fields are being converted to artificial surfaces, good for television but bad for football development. People ask: why is Nigeria home to the largest supporters of EPL teams in the world? The answer is that the domestic game is bad and has almost zero followership. Add to all that the fact that everyone knows how corrupt the leagues are and no one can do anything about it; and how hooligans have turned venues into no-go areas for decent people that would ordinarily have made domestic home matches their weekend pastimes. Almost all the clubs are owned by different state governments and so are not driven by business principles or plans. The moment governments are involved forget about the football business developing into anything. Yet, in Nigeria, for the foreseeable future, governments will continue to be deeply involved.

It was, therefore, a lot of bad news all around the conference until a new angle was introduced by one of the panelists. Even the developed football cultures of Europe are presently floundering in the football business. Most of the top clubs, Real Madrid FC, Barcelona FC, AC Milan, Chelsea FC, Glasgow Rangers, Manchester City, Benfica, etc all are awash in hue debts they can never repay. Of the English Premiership’s 20 clubs only 3 can claim to be making some kind of profit. Also of Italy’s 20 Clubs none is making profit. Even Spain’s La Liga clubs are in worse shape than most others in Europe. Belgium’s top clubs have all gone under.

So, Africa’s situation can conveniently be considered to be that of not having taken off at all. The continent is still virgin territory for the football business and it is now provided with the opportunity to avoid what Europe is doing and failing. Africa must look within itself, at its own peculiarities, and find something new that will work and grow the football business in the continent.

What not to do is ‘nothing’. Not to have a plan of action is to drift and hope in vain that the business and the game will grow on their own. They will not. What is immediately needed is any action that will improve the intellectual capacity of football administrators.

One of the participants asked two pertinent questions: ‘if you want to run a proper and profitable business would you hire a manager who knows nothing about the business to manage it? If the business is that of football in your country, would those running it today be the ones you would hire?’. Those questions spoke volumes.

So, what to do?

Africa must continue to discover and groom its young talents. It must keep them long enough in their countries’ domestic football until they have matured enough and imbibed the culture and psychology of the African game.

Agreed that the transition to Europe must take place for an African player’s football development to be complete, but it must not erode the African uniqueness he brings to the game. It must be a compliment. That’s why the young African player must be guided into foreign clubs that will enhance and improve his game.