About a year ago, Infantino Gianni got elected as FIFA President with a clear majority, yet amid serious allegations on endemic corruption at their management level, voters arm-twisting and usual electioneering dirty games.
He defeated strong opponents, fundamentally on assumption he would bring the necessary changes and required transparency to this organisation whose image was seriously dented, almost shuttered.
He promised to uplift forgotten continents notably Africa, Asia and Oceania, which was a good strategic move as they constitute a big chunk of the electoral body.
He pledged to increase to 40 teams at the World Cup 2026 that implied more African teams would be selected (currently 5 out of 32).
But what happened since then?
Even before he got settled, Infantino made symbolic visits to South Sudan, Ethiopia and later on to Nigeria to show he meant business and would keep his word.
Indeed each African FA received more money support (US$1million doubled from previously) but the grantees were compelled to sign performance contracts, more strict on the development side (Academies, Administrators, Coach, Referee, Youth/Women leagues)
Infantino’s predecessor was said to be more lenient, leaving almost the fund at the discretionary management of each FA president, the very people who would elect him a couple of times.
Infantino did even better and quick. He appointed a new Secretary General from Africa. The appointment of the Senegalese lady Fatma Samba, a no-nonsense professional lawyer, sent an unequivocal signal that he counted on Africa and would stick with it.
Yet the relationship with CAF executives is said to have deteriorated further.
A bit expected since Issa Hayatou - and CAF executive committee- supported openly the competitor Bahraini Salman during the bitter election campaign.
Persistent rumours about some maneuvering to overthrow him are getting loud. And plots are seen everywhere, behind each informal meeting of FA presidents. Suspected FA bosses may have even received verbal warning and are being even ostracized
The last media reports from Egypt - home to CAF head office- on possible corruption around the 1B$ marketing contract, “unduly” awarded to the French group Lagardère, has spiced up the conspiracy theory, which may not diffuse the situation soon!
Even when it is normal for FIFA to check on and impose some transparency equally to all confederations including CAF, apparently ring fenced around and for Hayatou!
Implementing pledged reforms and new strategies
On the football management side, Infantino approved some reforms that will challenge FAs from the developing World, sending also very mixed signals.
He agreed and strategized to introduce gradually some video recording to assist in the refereeing decision during a meeting engineered by EUFA last May 2016, an agenda probably driven by some manufacturers and or FIFA contractors.
Beyond the slowness introduced similarly to the American football or NBA, it gets more challenging for our FAs, today still unable to afford the simpler goal line technology; when so many stadiums in Africa are built almost identically and as grants from China!
Right now FAs are fighting for their own survival, sustainability with empty stadiums, under sponsored leagues, financially weak teams and limited broadcasting rights.
This is seriously challenged by the European competitions broadcast daily and enjoying incredible large Fans’ clubs and even with buzzing betting businesses.
If such standards are set or made compulsory, most local stadiums would not match the requirements to host any high level tournaments soon.
Which is a serious bone of contention with CAF, seen as favouring rich federations or confederations and ending by creating 2 or 3 tiers system within FIFA; thus keeping the current FIFA seeding ad eternam. Cooperation and coordination with CAF is needed!
Moreover, the last FIFA Executive decision to recommend 48 teams for the WC 2026 is also coming with some controversy.
The idea is apparently meant for a noble cause to ensure the football business would reach the rising Asia countries; to balance and or equalize all confederations weight
The highly populated China and India would bring in such large audience and sponsorship opportunities- and TV broadcasting rights would reach billions of dollars.
No doubt about it given the sums of money splashed on players’ transfers today and China government focus on football subject matter set as national priority until they win a World Cup!
It is planed that 48 teams would be drawn in 16 groups of 3 teams. Unless otherwise regulated, it would be expected that African teams would mostly be found in the low seeded drawing Pot; thus lowering chances to reach the 32 teams even much lower than today.
More fundamentally, 48 teams would imply atleast 12 stadiums by hosting country.
Which makes the likes USA more favorable for 2026, while Morocco would not be able to compete even in 2030 if Australia, Canada or China decide to submit their application.
Unless the change allows joint hosting by countries, in certain cases allowing for an entire region - say East Africa, where 4/6/8 countries could bid jointly.
While the idea is theoretically likable, feasible and strategic, it would require very strong leadership and coordination.
And a winning promotional campaign showcasing some intangible criteria such as proven long term stability, peace and security and easy and free movement for spectators meaning for the local citizens, visitors and tourists alike.
Also demonstrate a certain level of football development at the time of bid application; which the ineffective and unsustainable CECAFA failed to achieve so far.
A sad reality with so many clubs and national teams of the region unable to go beyond initial qualifying stages in CAF competitions, for decades. With lowest FIFA ranking!
This calls for a very strong intervention from both CAF and FIFA to equalize and balance the football level further on the continent itself to remain consistent with the whole logic; West and North African regions being far ahead.
The involvement of private entrepreneurs in the design, operations and management of more competitive tournaments or high profile academy projects adding the needed professionalism to their business networks would make East Africa look good again!
These enjoining initiatives should draw some interest and FIFA support.
How best to unlock the Africa potential?
Overall, Infantino did well for his first year. He kept his promises and remained very committed, closely in touch with Africa.
Yet these recent FIFA strategic orientations meant for good to Africa come with winners and losers. The latter being the likely outcome for Africa football if not properly managed and supported beyond the modest grant referred above.
FIFA need to engage all the stakeholders beyond the FAs into some serious discussions to determine the better course of action to remain competitive while catching up on the above new requirements at this time when football business is indeed moving global.
In fact, FIFA should extend the partnership to African Governments and the local private sector investing in the hard and soft infrastructures and the whole ecosystem to enable the development of football talents, youth academies and domestic/regional leagues.
It is easy for FIFA to decide on pilot countries and to link these interventions with the SDG goals (3/8/910) leading to youth employment and private sector development.
FIFA would package their intervention with those knocking multinationals enticing them in meaningful sponsorships, to shakeup or bring some value to the local football industry.
With more focus and resources, and leveraging FIFA network!
CAN2017 is showing good progress and competitive games but the level is due to players active in foreign leagues mainly in Europe; things will go back to the routine in each FA with the usual bickering and low performance in domestic tournaments.
There is no point to increasing the slots for Africa at the World Cup if they cannot organise credible and sustained leagues, if most National teams remain very low seeded and cannot pass even the very first group stage at WC as it is the case until recently!
The writer is a Management Consultant - East Africa League Initiative.Follow https://twitter.com/rmunya