With Real Madrid and their noisy but vastly improved neighbours Atletico, earning well-deserved places at this year’s UEFA Champions’ League final in Lisbon, the fraternity looks forward to what is certainly going to be a keenly contested encounter.
But as Europe’s – and undoubtedly the world’s – leading club tournament grows in competitive and commercial strength, certainly helped by the huge global audience it continues to pull, it is a telling reminder, to African club football, of what it is not.
Moise Katumbi, president of DR Congo club TP Mazembe – the first non-European/South American team to reach the final of the Club World Cup (Morocco’s Raja Casablanca became the second, at last year’s tournament) knows this only too well.
During my visit to the Lubumbashi-based club, the millionaire owner, who has built a stadium for the club, which also owns its own plane, hardly hid the fact that running Mazembe makes a dent on his personal finances.
“In a single season, especially when we’re participating in the CAF Champions’ League, we spend over $10 million in a season,” he told me.
And that is for a competition that has a $1.5 million reward, only if you manage to win the trophy.
During that visit to Lubumbashi – which was in 2012, ahead of a vital Champions’ League game against Egyptian side Zamalek, Katumbi expressed hope that he would wean the club off his financial intervention and ensure that they achieve self-sufficiency within a period of five years.
Eighteen months into that plan, I am hardly surprised that the stark financial realities of the African club game are throwing a huge spanner in the works of his financial projections.
“We are trying to offer the best things to our players – it’s really tough in Africa to maintain a club,” confessed Katumbi in a recent interview.
It certainly is, especially when a well-run club, dependent on the financial benevolence of its owner, has to overcome the difficulties of a harsh environment, in which their league competitors are gasping for breath.
The situation in the politically unstable DR Congo, where the abysmal levels of television revenue and commercial sponsorship (assuming they exist, of course) leaves most clubs tottering on the brink of ruin, there is no enabling environment that creates the platform for a club, even one with a wealthy but right-thinking owner, to plot a path that would lead his club to financial independence and self-sufficiency.
No club, even one that aims to be professionally run, can thrive in a league where the overwhelming number of its competitors are locked in an embrace with penury.
And the situation in DR Congo is certainly mirrored in several countries across the continent.
“[Those] investing in football in Europe should also come to Africa, because the future is in Africa,” Katumbi said.
“The money [for football] in Europe comes from TV and sponsors. It is a big problem to have sponsors in Africa.”
But as Katumbi would (or should) recognise, the influx of cash, from the US, the Arabian Gulf and other parts of Asia, into European football has been targeted at certain clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, PSG and Inter – that built themselves into brands with an international appeal, long before the fat wallets came calling.
And even ‘unknown’ clubs that might not have their reputation or prestige but happen to play within an English Premier league, for example, that is the world’s most visible and financially successful competition, offers these unknowns a chance to attract investment, which can be seen as a calculated risk by punters.
No African club, sadly, has the advantage of having a global profile or plays within a national league with one, which clearly makes the possibility of substantial international investment particularly difficult.
Getting African clubs into the position where they will attract international investment is a pretty hard ask.
That is unlikely to happen until there is a concerted effort, by those running the continent’s national championships, particularly in the bigger countries, like Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, to build them into brands that would attract the world’s attention and cash.
Investment decisions into leagues and football clubs, as the Qataris have done in France, are never done on the back of altruism or solidarity. They are cold-blooded business decisions, in which the investor clearly sees a long-term benefit and value.
Unfair as that is, that’s the reality of the present day football beast.
But does that mean that European club football, which has an unfettered pick of African talent, besides earning substantial sums in commercial television revenue from the continent, should continue to take from the continent without having a statutory responsibility of putting something back into it?
Anyone that believes in equity should not have a hard time in agreeing that the relationship between European and African football has been lopsided and there is urgent need to create a new order, in which some financial recompense is made, by the former, to the latter.
That will certainly be for the good of the game.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.