The football champions of Africa will be crowned tomorrow as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s TP Mazembe take on Heartland of Nigeria in the final of the African Champions League. But what should be a showcase of the best football Africa has to offer will serve only as a reminder of the challenges the sport faces here. For the players on the pitch, the Champions League trophy is irrelevant. They will be playing for a much bigger prize – the possibility of a move to Europe.
As the continent prepares to welcome the world’s best footballers to next year’s World Cup in South Africa, the local game is suffering. The vast majority of Africa’s best footballers play their club football in Europe. So do a lot of the mediocre ones. The money is far better and the chances of eventually playing for the national team also far greater.
The exodus of African footballers to Europe has had a terrible effect on the local leagues. In Senegal, officials estimate that 80 Senegalese footballers now ply their trade in France and Belgium. Hundreds of Nigerians are believed to be playing in leagues across Europe and Asia. Those that remain are nowhere near as good.
As the standard of football in African leagues decreases, interest from fans has begun to dry up. Satellite coverage of European leagues, particularly the English premier league, has also had an effect on crowds. African leagues that schedule matches at the same time as an English premier league fixture can find just a few hundred people in the stands.
Some leagues have started to innovate. In Sierra Leone matches are scheduled to avoid English fixtures and crowds can sometimes be as high as 20,000. Supersport, the South African satellite broadcaster that shows the top European leagues, has helped to improve standards in some local leagues by buying the TV rights to matches in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria. The additional income has encouraged those leagues to become more professional, cracking down on the corruption and mismanagement that has blighted African football for so long. But still, the dream for any African player is to play for Manchester United or Barcelona, not Mathare United or Bayelsa.
Europe is where the money is. Even Africa’s premier tournament, the Champions League, brings in very little cash. The winning team gets $1.5m (€1m) but most of the clubs do well just to break even. Exorbitant airfares on the continent mean that clubs often have to shell out as much as $50,000 just to get to an away game.
At least the Champions League still attracts fans. More than 35,000 Congolese supporters will be packed into Lubumbashi’s Stade de la Kenya to watch TP Mazembe take on Heartland. In Mazembe’s semi-final three weeks ago against Khartoum’s Al Hilal, the stadium was full more than an hour before kick off, with thousands more locked out. The players certainly won’t mind another big crowd – just so long as the agents and scouts visiting from Europe manage to find a seat.