Our London Bureau Chief (and basically any other city that’s not in your country) Syl Wekesa is back and this time he draws from his geo-political knowledge to shed some light into the shifts at the leadership of African football and the implications.
Among many of his achievements, Issa Hayatou was a former sprinting athlete, a former Minister of Sports in Cameroon (a footballing powerhouse in Africa), a FIFA presidential candidate in the 2002 elections and a man whose name had become synonymous with the Confederation of African Football (CAF). After 29 years at the helm of the CAF, this man lost an election to Ahmad Ahmad – a former footballer and coach in Madagascar, a country known less for any football achievements and more for political upheavals in the recent times. From the previous elections history, competing against Hayatou proved to be a futile exercise. Throughout his tenure, Hayatou was elected unopposed bar two occasions; one in 2000 when he faced Angola’s Armando Machado and in 2004 against Ismail Bhamjee of Botswana. On both occasions, he won with a landslide. This explains why the 2017 CAF elections were seen as a contest similar to the biblical David versus Goliath battle. How did Ahmad Ahmad pull off this big defeat?
To understand how Hayatou met his Waterloo it is important to look back at the recent events in the world of football management.
A man of his stature and experience ought to have sensed the mood and perhaps even retired honourably. But just like some of his fellow political leaders on the continent who are averse to retiring, Hayatou decided to stay on despite glaring warning signs. Having been at the helm of CAF for a considerable amount of time coupled with memberships in powerful committees within FIFA, Hayatou should have known his time was up especially when FIFA President Sepp Blatter was ousted through a litany of corruption allegations. Blatter did not fall alone. He went down with UEFA’s Michel Platini, Jerome Valcke a powerful Secretary General as well as other heads of football federations and that should have been a wakeup call for Hayatou.
Hayatou’s supporters discount this view as up to date there hasn’t been a major corruption case levelled against him. However, this has not stopped the rumour mills and the blogosphere to speculate. Admittedly, how Hayatou emerged from the vicious FIFA scandal unscathed remains a mystery, as he emerged unblemished with no single bruise to his nose nor any scratch to his skin. In fact, he temporarily assumed the leadership role of FIFA as the investigators hounded his former allies to courts. This perhaps emboldened his resolve to soldier on.
With the era of Sepp Blatter behind us, the emergence of Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino as the new FIFA boss was a surprise to many pundits and observers. Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman had emerged as a front runner. This 2016 FIFA election is important in analysing the loss that Hayatou suffered in Addis Ababa a year later. CAF under the instructions of Hayatou threw their weight behind Sheikh Salman. Few reasons were put forward as to why Salman was a good bet for Africa. However, whispers pointed towards the power of the petro dollar playing a huge impact in swaying Hayatou and a majority of his CAF members. Having cast all his eggs in the basket of Sheikh Salman, the results proved to be a nightmare for Hayatou. When Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA boss he promised to clear FIFA of its past dirt and start it on a clean state. This sweeping statement that is recurring in every new office was a clear sign that Hayatou’s goose was cooked and ready to be served at the right time. Within the camp of Infantino, there was a rebel and ‘traitor’ from Africa who refused to go with the masses in supporting Sheikh Salman – Monsieur Ahmad Ahmad. His bid was on Infantino and as they say, the rest is history.
The outcome of the 2016 FIFA elections sealed the fate of Issa Hayatou. Besides, reports of simmering tensions between FIFA and CAF have stemmed from Hayatou failing to support his new boss. Although this is his democratic right, we all know the perils of this and the wrangles that follow. With the ascension of Infantino as the new FIFA supremo, he embarked on his mission to help clean FIFA’s image. The ideal place to begin this was with the heads of the continental bodies like Hayatou.
Within the African continent, his message for change resonated well with Zimbabwe’s flamboyant FA Chief Phillip Chiyangwa, a leading campaigner for Ahmad. Last month this new found friendship culminated into a goat eating ceremony in Zimbabwe, where Infantino attended Chiyangwa’s birthday party during his African tour. This cleared any doubts as to which horse Infantino was backing in this race. Ahmad Ahmad from Madagascar was the chosen one.
Under his long tenure, like him or hate him, Issa Hayatou has foreseen many changes on the football scene in the African continent. At the time of his first election, Africa had only two representatives at the World Cup. Currently, there are five representatives with the hope of an increase in number. It is under his tenure that the first World Cup in Africa was held in 2010 in South Africa. Besides this major tournament, other FIFA tournaments for the youth have been held in the continent in Egypt and Nigeria. The African Cup of Nations has expanded from the initial eight teams to now include sixteen teams. His dalliance with FIFA brought a lot of financial benefits for the local football federations. He will leave CAF with a robust financial base due to the shrewd partnerships he built with corporate companies over time. Despite these major achievements his longevity in office comes with a price. His critics point to the chaotic African domestic leagues as one his major failures though it is hard to tell exactly how he could have streamlined these leagues. In my opinion his biggest mistake was overstaying and not knowing when to quit. Moreover, there have been corruption allegations labelled against him; the biggest being the 2001 International Olympics Committee probe for receiving money from a public relations firm. At the time of writing he is facing a corruption case in Egypt over the awarding of television rights. Such incidences have overshadowed his achievements.
Despite being the chosen one, Ahmad’s candidacy resonated excellently with the clamour for change that has been sweeping across the African continent particularly on the political scene. Hayatou’s longevity and his advanced age made him a target for the newbies who called for fresh ideas through a generational change. Regardless of whether he had a progressive manifesto or not, the fact that he represented the alternative people made him a strong challenger of Hayatou. His campaign has been on a platform of administrative reform, promoting financial transparency and promising to reorganise the CAF competitions. These are issues that have been on the lips of Hayatou’s critics for a long time.
As Hayatou bids farewell to CAF he will remember that change is inevitable and nothing permanent. Ahmad will have to speedily convince the continent that he is not simply Infantino’s blue eyed boy, but his own man and is able to deliver on his promises. The change he promised will be awaited with much expectations.