Dark clouds hang over ‘revolutionary’ African Football League as PSL gripes persist

Dark clouds hang over ‘revolutionary’ African Football League as PSL gripes persist
the Premier Soccer League (PSL) is reluctant to alter its fixture list to accommodate Sundowns’ participation in the competition. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

The African Football League is now just weeks away. However, it is still shrouded in uncertainty.

In its essence, the concept of the African Football League (AFL) is quite simple.

Take the crème-de-la-crème of the continent’s soccer fraternity, pit them against each other and hopefully you’ll be blessed with some scintillating soccer clashes.

This will hopefully draw in more sponsors and boost the financial state of the continent’s game. Which will in turn make African nations more competitive at Fifa World Cups. 

The furthest any African country has made it at the quadrennial tournament is a semifinal when Morocco achieved the feat at Qatar 2022.

The beginning

Featuring eight teams to start off, the tournament — which kicks off on 20 October — is touted as being the magical wand which may soon see an African nation lift the golden World Cup trophy.  

“One of the main objectives for forming the AFL is to ensure that the quality of African Club football is globally competitive and that African football clubs are commercially viable,” says the Confederation of African Football (CAF) on the competition.

“The AFL will also contribute to the development and growth of youth football talent on the African Continent.”

Formerly known as the Africa Super League, it was changed to its current moniker a few months ago, with CAF president Patrice Motsepe explaining that the “Super League” title could have some negative connotations.

“We have decided to change the name of the Super League to the African Football League. Our friends in Europe advised us not to use the name Super League because of the negative associations with the recent failed attempt in Europe,” Motsepe shared in July 2023.

Patrice Motsepe

President of CAF Patrice Motsepe. (Photo: Sebastian Frej / MB Media / Getty Images)

Of course, Europe’s failed Super League was led by some of the most historically successful clubs on that particular side of the world. Clubs whose bosses felt the existence of a middleman in the form of mother body Uefa was depriving them of their full potential of earnings. Uefa and Fifa quickly shut it down.

The African version is of course being led by CAF as opposed to the clubs. Fifa has also thrown its weight behind it. In fact, it was Fifa president Gianni Infantino who first whispered the idea of such a competition to the CAF hierarchy in 2020.

Though the eight teams in the inaugural competition are far less than the 20 he suggested, the hope is that the competition will grow from strength to strength to include more sides.

For now, there is only space for Enyimba FC (Nigeria), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa), TP Mazembe (DR Congo), Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunisia), Petró Luanda (Angola), Simba SC (Tanzania) and record African champions Al Ahly (Egypt).

Pushbacks and setbacks

Naturally, this has raised questions of “why them and not us?” This may be the reason why in South Africa the Premier Soccer League (PSL) is reluctant to alter its fixture list to accommodate Sundowns’ participation in the competition.

The league already shuffles its fixture list to accommodate South African sides that participate in the CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup.

However, it appears this time they are unwilling to budge, in spite of the fact that details of the tournament have been in the public domain for almost a year. 

Not to mention that Motsepe swooped in Superman-esque when the PSL were struggling to find a sponsor for the second tier of South African soccer in 2022. The league is now called the Motsepe Foundation Championship.    

Motsepe stepped in to save the day and shield the PSL from embarrassment. Just as he saved the South African Football Association (Safa) during the standoff with Banyana Banyana prior to the World Cup.

However, even though Motsepe stepped down from Sundowns’ day-to-day operations when he took up the CAF presidency in mid-2021, there have always been questions when it comes to conflict of interest.

Something which Motsepe dismissed just before his election as CAF president, saying: “[We need] to make sure there is no doubt in terms of our commitment to fairness and neutrality.”

This latest impasse with the league may serve to highlight some bad blood between the hierarchy of other clubs and the Motsepes. Though no one would come out and say it outright.

Since the Motsepes took over the club almost 20 years ago, Sundowns has perennially dominated the domestic scene — bolstered by the family’s extensive wealth.

With the eight teams participating in the AFL set to earn a guaranteed $1-million each, there may be fear that Masandawana will pull further away from the chasing pack domestically. Hence the resistance of the BoG.

Khuliso Mudau of Mamelodi Sundowns

Khuliso Mudau of Mamelodi Sundowns and Junior Kavumbagu of Bumamuru during the CAF Champions League at Lucas Moripe Stadium on 30 September 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Keeping in mind Sundowns’ depth in player quality, they may well choose to split up their squad for their domestic commitments and the continental obligations in the event of certain fixture clashes as things stand.

Safa — which has long endorsed the AFL — has shared that it will seek an audience with the PSL to help find a way forward. Though with the historically frosty relationship between the pair, it will be easier said than done.

There is also a dark cloud hanging over Sundowns’ Angolan opponents in the quarterfinal. Petro stands accused of match-fixing and has been banned for two years by the country’s federation.

They are in the process of fighting this punishment and if it is upheld, they may find themselves kicked out of the competition before it even commences.

Meanwhile, the coach of Al Ahly, Marcel Koller, has bemoaned the compressed schedule of matches. Especially as the competition will commence after an international break which requires travelling. 

“The dates of the African Football League fixtures are not suitable. The international players, whether Egyptians or other nationalities, will suffer because of the dense schedule,” he told the club’s TV channel.

Safe to say, as it stands, the AFL is far from being viewed as “Super”. DM


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