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Africa’s Upper Hand-Part 1

An air of familiarity engulfs the CAF Champions League semifinals. Title-holders Esperance de Tunis will host the 2015 winners, TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo, on 27 April, and then travel to Lubumbashi the following week for the second leg. The 2016 champions, Mamelodi Sundowns, take on the 2017 victors Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in Rabat on April 26 in the first leg.

Meeting familiar foes is quite common in Africa’s premier club competition, especially for North African teams who have dominated this competition. 
Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Egyptian clubs have made 19 appearances in the previous 15 finals. With the exception of some South African and Congolese sides, the North Africans have reigned supreme in most of those meetings.

There are several factors that contribute to North African footballing supremacy, the principal explanation being money.

The biggest clubs in the Maghreb can cobble together yearly budgets upwards of $10 million (just over R143-million). Last season, for instance, Wydad Casablanca set a club record by generating $12-million (over R172-million). Esperance de Tunis announced a budget of $8.5-million during the 2015/2016 season. Cairo giants Al Ahly and Zamalek generate even larger sums than those.

Even disregarding the outlier that is new Egyptian club Pyramids FC — which spent more than $50 million (almost R717-million) in transfers last summer — the simple truth is that many North African clubs possess sizeable budgets, allowing for the construction of infrastructure and better player acquisition.

Football as a bargaining chip in Nigeria

Football investment is not a matter of simple economics, as proven by Nigeria, where finding private investment remains a chore in the continent’s largest economy.

“The richest man in Africa, Aliko Dangote, is Nigerian,” Andrew Randa, a Nigerian journalist who reports on the Nigerian Premier Football League (NPFL), said.

“He was rumoured to have wanted to take over [English giants] Arsenal FC twice, and Nigerians ask why he cannot invest in Kano Pillars, a club from his home region? But football is political in Nigeria, it is used as a bargaining chip. Most Nigerian clubs revolve around government agencies.”

Former Nigerian national team coach Christian Chukwu recently spoke on the necessity of private investment.

“For now, everything is in the hands of government; but there will be significant improvement the time private investors, with real commitment, come in and own [a] greater percentage of the shares. Government cannot continue to run every aspect of the system, it’s not possible at all,” Chukwu told The Independent of Nigeria.

Public funding seems to be the prevailing model throughout the continent, but it is particularly commonplace in West Africa. Speaking to German publication DW (Deutsche Welle) in 2017, Gabon’s CF Mounana striker Chico Sassou succinctly explained the problem with government funding in domestic football.

“Here in Gabon, football is organised by the state. When the state has problems, as a player, you get less money.”

One club that has recently bucked the trend in West Africa is Guinea’s Horoya AC, which is de facto owned by multi-millionaire Antonio Souaré.

Souaré ensures Horoya has a budget in the ballpark of $5 million (just over R71-million) for operating costs. The CEO of Groupe Business Marketing is also financing a brand-new stadium and a state-of-the-art football academy 40 kilometres from Conakry.

Nevertheless, the Horoya model of private investment remains extremely rare in West Africa.

In East Africa, diversified revenue streams are slowly being established. The Ugandan Premier League recently signed a 10-year, $7-million (just over R100-million) TV deal with Chinese television channel StarTimes. The Kenyan Premier League has developed a partnership with La Liga, which it consults concerning television deals as well. The Bakhresa Group in Tanzania has shown that they can run a well-oiled machine with Azam FC.

Yet both West and East Africa are very behind when it comes to developing football infrastructure. Salim Masoud Said, a Tanzanian journalist who has travelled throughout North and East Africa, attests to the gulf in quality of regional installations.

“A club in the second division in Tunisia like [Olympique de] Beja has facilities that would be the envy of giants in Tanzania like Yanga or Simba,” Said explained.

Volcanic atmospheres tilt the scales

Yet even when the money and facilities are in place, as is the case in South Africa, a multitude of additional factors feed North African dominance in the Champions League. The home-and-away format of the knockout stages, in particular, is an advantage in the Maghreb.

During the tail end of the 1990s, the ultra movement filtered down from Europe to North Africa. As a result, organised groups of supporters began choreographing chants, displaying tifos and travelling thousands of kilometres to away matches.

The first ultra groups appeared in Tunisia and Morocco before spreading to Egypt and Algeria. As a result, North African stadiums began to harbour volcanic atmospheres that spur on hosts and intimidate visitors.

“There’s a fear factor and mental block when most West African teams travel to North Africa,” Randa insists.

“When they play North Africans, they just switch off. It happens year after year,” the Nigerian journalist continues.

Sundowns’ coach, Pitso Mosimane, further fleshed out the intimidation his side experienced when playing in Algeria.

“The big thing about North Africans is all about the intimidation. When we were playing [ES] Setif, I remember at one stage one of my players was running down the line from the right side and the bottles were dropping from the top. I mean, how do you keep playing?”

In another statement, Mosimane indicated that Zamalek supporters issued death threats to his players leading up to the final of the 2016 CAF Champions League final the Brazilians won.

“There have been messages sent to the players, whoever has Instagram, Facebook, Twitter… they’ve received death threats, all of them.”

Following the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the governments of both nations imposed caps on attendance, slightly reducing the advantage.

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