Mon. Jun 10th, 2024

The African Football League (AFL), which concluded on Sunday when Mamelodi Sundowns won the title, has received mixed reviews after its inaugural edition.

The South African club clinched the trophy on home soil when beating Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca 2-0 to seal a 3-2 aggregate win in front of a packed crowd in Pretoria.

The new tournament, created by world governing body Fifa and the Confederation of African Football (Caf), featured eight teams, with 24 expected in 2024 for the tournament’s second outing.

After Sundowns celebrated, Fifa president Gianni Infantino – who attended the final at Loftus Versfeld Stadium – was effusive in his praise for a tournament he has long championed.

“This is what African football needs – the best playing together more often in a top professional environment,” Infantino said.

“I’m very proud of this collaboration between Fifa and Caf. We’re seeing on the field of play as well [that] it brings a lot of quality for Africa and for the world.”

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Sundowns and Wydad aside, the other contestants included Egyptians Al Ahly, Tunisia’s Esperance, TP Mazembe of DR Congo, Angolans Petro de Atletico, Tanzania’s Simba and Enyimba of Nigeria.

While Infantino may have understandably waxed lyrical after seeing his brainchild come to fruition nearly four years after first proposing it, others accentuated both pluses and minuses in assessing the initial tournament.

“My main concern is the amount of games that players have to play from a health aspect,” former South Africa international Matthew Booth, who played for Sundowns in two separate spells, told BBC Sport Africa.

“In South Africa, we have concluded the MTN 8 competition and League Cup, we are well into our league and clubs have started to play Caf Champions League and Confederations Cup matches.

“Sundowns have just played an additional six games in the AFL so from a game overload point of view, we’ve got to be very careful. I think only Sundowns in South Africa has got a big enough squad to cope with that load.”

In future, the winners will not play six games but more than double that given this year’s inaugural event was vastly slimmed down – reduced from the initially proposed 24 teams – just three months before kick-off.

This meant only 14 matches were played in total, in contrast to the 197 initially earmarked by Caf and Fifa for a 24-team event – a tally that could yet re-emerge, even as many AFL teams also contest the concurrent Champions League.

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Dancers perform among fireworks during the opening ceremony and inaugural game of the African Football League between Simba of Tanzania and Al Ahly of Egypt at the Benjamin Mkapa Stadium in Dar es Salaam on 20 October 2023
The AFL kicked off amidst great fanfare on 20 October when Simba of Tanzania hosted Egyptian giants Al Ahly in front of a bumper crowd
One of the AFL’s stated aims is to “bring much-needed new streams of financial investment into African football”, with the prize money on offer greater than that handed out in the continent’s Champions League.

Both the AFL and Champions League winners receive $4m, albeit with the latter event taking months not weeks, while the AFL runners-up take home $2.8m, which is $800,000 more than the beaten Champions League finalists receive.

Eliminated at the quarter-final stage, Simba received $900,000 for their two matches, which the club’s media manager described as a “financial windfall”.

“When you look at the number of games versus the income, it’s very different and will help us in running the club from administration, salaries and bonuses, so the money is very useful,” Ahmed Ally told the BBC.

“The tournament has good financial muscle and has come to save African clubs who’ve been struggling to make money.”

Booth, who made over 150 appearances for Sundowns between 1998 and 2011, is not so sure.

“We have to be very careful about this competition being elitist and a case of wealthy clubs getting even wealthier. If the AFL money went to the Champions League, there would be more trickledown to the smaller clubs,” the 46-year-old said.

“There are advantages and disadvantages either way and these have just got to be weighed up properly by the powers that be.

“On the positive side, the fact that Sundowns established themselves as the number one club in Africa is a massive point of pride for us South Africans, and a lot of people are talking about the amount of money they’ve just won.

“The continent’s top clubs seem to win their local leagues every year, so to be able to play against tough opponents at certain stages is a good thing for player development and thus national teams.”

In many pundits’ eyes, an existing tournament already provides such opportunities to players – the Champions League, which launched as the African Cup of Champions Clubs nearly 60 years ago.

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Given last season’s Champions League featured 58 teams from 46 different countries and required nine months of competition, the tournament is seen as a tougher nut to crack by some fans.

“I don’t think the AFL could ever be more prestigious than the Champions League where you need to work harder, face tougher competition and play in places where conditions might not favour you,” said Sudanese football scout Abdul Musa.

“The Champions League qualifies you for the Club World Cup and is – historically – a bigger prize. If they put similar attention, money and marketing into the Champions League, it could benefit more clubs because you have 50-60 teams in the Champions League, not just eight.”

One fan of Nigeria’s Enyimba does not share such concerns, even if her favourites disappointed when losing 4-0 on aggregate to Wydad in the AFL quarter-finals, the stage where all teams began.

“This is the best thing that has happened to Africans over the years, because it gives us the leverage to unite together and showcase our rich heritage and culture,” Jennifer Ezinne Uduma told the BBC.

It is a viewpoint with which Uduma’s compatriot Oluwashina Okeleji, a Nigerian sports journalist, disagrees.

“All of the investment in the AFL should have gone to the Champions League – revamp it, pump in a lot of money and make it more popular,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“The whole ‘Super League’ idea is super silly in my opinion, and I don’t think a lot of fans are talking about it because it doesn’t look like a pan-African tournament but one for a select few competing for money over three weeks.

Al Ahly fans during the African Football League semi-final second leg against Mamelodi Sundowns at the Cairo International Stadium on 1 November 2023
Al Ahly fans came out in force for their two home games in this year’s African Football League
“That it’s happening side-by-side with the Caf Champions League is a bit shocking – as in, which one should we take more seriously?”

Both Caf and Fifa say there are no plans to scrap the Champions League, which brings with it the honour of becoming Africa’s Fifa Club World Cup representative – an incentive the AFL cannot currently boast.

“The AFL will not cannibalise and compete with the Caf Champions League; the two competitions will each have their own strong unique qualities,” AFL organisers recently stated.

At present, their aim is to distribute AFL-generated funds “to all 54 Caf members and local leagues to improve football development”, which does not happen with the Champions League.

It is unclear, however, if the sums generated by this year’s inaugural AFL, sponsored by Visit Saudi and Visit Rwanda, will be enough to be spread around the continent after first covering the $12m in prize money to the teams.

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Fluctuating interests
Enjoyment of the inaugural AFL appeared to vary considerably across Africa, with the levels of interest seemingly dictated by whether a country had a tournament representative or not.

“There was next to no interest in Zimbabwe, with many considering it an unnecessary competition when we already have the Champions League,” said Harare-based reporter Steve Vickers.

The same opinion was repeated by journalists in several other non-represented countries, whereas the AFL made much more of an impact among football fans in the eight (out of a possible 54) partaking nations.

“Angolan fans loved being in the maiden edition, but champions Petro de Atletico were accused of lacking fitness and competitiveness given that the local championship had only started five days earlier,” said Angolan reporter Arlindo Macedo.

“Regarding the prize money, it is more credible than ever that the club will invest more in the AFL to generate greater gains and expand its ambitions, such as raising the squad level via future signings.”

Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Caf president Patrice Motsepe at the African Football League final second leg between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Casablanca
The AFL was a joint creation by Fifa and Caf, whose respective presidents Gianni Infantino and Patrice Motsepe both attended Sunday’s final in Pretoria
Fans in Morocco followed further than most after Wydad, who won their third African club crown last year, reached the final.

“It was widely watched here in Morocco, with the existence of the biggest African teams another reason for the interest,” football expert Jalal Bounouar explained.

“However, the fans were not satisfied as the games were not that entertaining or competitive, save for those involving Sundowns as they were great and played high-level football.”

Local interest in Egypt ended as soon as Al Ahly, the record 11-time continental champions, exited in the semi-finals at the hands of Sundowns, one reporter.

Viewing figures have yet to be announced by broadcasters but the number of subscribers to the AFL’s YouTube page rose from under 1,000 to just over 9,000 during the course of the 24-day competition, while its streams of Sunday’s match has attracted 38,000 views at time of publication.

Many games were well attended, and the firm expectation – and hope – from organisers is that crowds, viewing figures and interest will only grow as the embryonic AFL continues its development.

“This is here to stay, here to grow, here to have an impact, here to give hopes and dreams to the entire African population in Africa and to the population around the world,” Infantino rallied in Pretoria.

By Joy

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