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Unpacking the Real Reason African Football is So Corrupt

Of course, colonialism has to do with it.

When it comes to African football, it’s often claimed to be in a bad state by all units of measurement. The last continental championship, AFCON, which ran earlier on this year, saw a constant stream of controversies and scandals flood through the whole competition frustrating all actors involved from players to coaches, fans and even sponsors. Most of these disputes– to some extent– can be traced back to some sort of residue of corruption, bribery, and malfeasance.

The above descriptors are practically synonymous with African football as a whole. Although the character and degree of such fraudulent dynamics may vary from one country to another, missing funds, match fixing and large-scale levels of embezzlement are some of the region’s main indicators of systemic wrongdoings. 

The recent qualifying games leading to the next World Cup edition are the latest fixtures to be under the fire of critics. Claims include that Cameroon might have interfered and hampered with match officials; and although these kinds of affirmations are anything but unusual to hear after knockout stage games, this time around, the accusations read under a different light and seem quite serious. Considering the recent events prior to these games, we can definitely understand why.

In the last AFCON alone, which took place a handful of weeks before the deciding matches, Tunisia suffered from referees ending a game before the official allocated time, Egypt from intimidation and pressure from match officials while Algeria complained about the poor quality of infrastructures and stadiums consistently throughout the tournament.

Corruption is undeniably present in all spheres of entertainment around the world. However, they tend to seem so much more explicit on the African continent than elsewhere. Especially when it comes to the world’s most popular sport. But the real question is why?

Like most issues within the continent, they can be traced back to European colonialism and exploitation. The game was first introduced to Africa in the late 1870s via the islands of Zanzibar, which were at the time a British colony. It was introduced to Africa as a colonial tactic to offer native Africans an outlet for activities as they moved into urban areas, and to “free them from the influence of immoral dance,” as a Catholic missionary put it. It’s easy to understand why Africans welcomed a colonial weapon despite the Bantu language lacking an indigenous name for ball. It’s all about football’s fundamental characteristics: it’s a fun game with simple rules, little equipment (ball, field, and goal markers), and social gatherings.

Africans then created their own football clubs from the start, using the safe haven of matches to recruit people prepared to fight colonialism. The formation of football clubs by local Africans alarmed European colonialists, who retaliated by imposing restrictive tactics such as requiring native Africans to play barefoot. The Algerian XI, a football club formed in Tunisia made up of Algerians who gave up their French football leagues to assist the Algerian independence cause, is perhaps the most renowned example of football’s colonial resistance. The Algerian XI set an example of “courage, rectitude, and unselfishness” for Algeria’s youth.

What does this mean for African football, given the pervasiveness and structure of corruption?

It’s nothing new and in fact has plagued through the continent’s successive competitions for decades. In 1990, former Ivory Coast manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, stated that  ‘African   football   suffers   from   chronic   organizational problems… There, politicians are interfering in absolutely everything, especially football.  The reasons are obvious:  football is very popular, particularly on the national level, and some marginal political characters are using football to collect political points… Basically, what we have is organisational chaos, but corruption also plays its part.

The issues remain as the international mother body, FIFA, has a strict non-interference rule to avoid national governments from interfering with football matters. This law was, amongst other things, to avoid situations like when Iraqi players were held captive and tortured following a poor performance by Saddam Hussein’s son in 1997. However, the other side of the coin makes executives of national federations accountable to FIFA rather than their local governments which eventually grants them with something close to limitless power.

The case is also true in Europe, in 2015 Sepp Blatter received a ban of six years for corruption and paying for votes in which Blatter was again the incumbent candidate, running for a fifth consecutive term. Jordanian Prince Ali bin Hussein was his opponent in the election. In 2021 the ban expired, Blatter received millions in bonus payments from FIFA for years of honorable service, where he was subsequently banned again. 

The game’s future on the continent is consequently being jeopardized due to a lack of investment in grassroot infrastructures caused by the incessant issue of corruption. These practices are steadily choking the game and despite the large sums of money that pour into the African game, not much of it ends up being used appropriately while also affecting the overall quality and levels of players.

The tide is slowly changing though. Although efforts are too little and rarely consequential enough, actions are finally materializing and sentences are being pronounced. Not so long ago, now former CAF president Ahmad Ahmad was found guilty of breaching several of FIFA’s code of ethics which included generous gifting and misappropriating funds during his time at the helm of the institution. This resulted in a five-year-long ban from partaking in any football-related activity on top of a hefty fine of approximately $220 000.

It goes without saying that more needs to be done and although it seems like we’re moving in somewhat of a better direction, it really still isn’t enough. Let’s also take the time to reflect and remind ourselves that even if these happenings are indeed more explicit in Africa, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen elsewhere. Africa might take the dim spotlight, but European football is just as rigged to not say more.

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