The Sports Examiner

LANE ONE: Sports in the ‘20s will be an American showcase, but is Africa actually the center of attention?

FIFA President Gianni Infantino (SUI)

If you are a fan of international sports living in the United States, there’s no doubt that the 2020s are going to be great. Consider:

2021: XI World Games ~ in Birmingham, Alabama
2021: World Athletics Championships ~ in Eugene, Oregon
2026: XXIII FIFA World Cup ~ in Canada/Mexico/United States
2028: Games of the XXXIV Olympiad ~ in Los Angeles, California

In addition, possibly the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2030.

That’s quite a schedule, but at the same time, the heads of international sports have decided that it’s Africa’s time to shine … whether the continent is ready or not.

This theme was dramatically underscored this past Saturday by FIFA President Gianni Infantino (SUI), speaking to all 54 members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) at the 2020 Seminar on the Development of Competitions and Infrastructure in Africa, in Rabat, Morocco. He told it like it is, and then promised change:

“There is also the reality, and it is sufficient [that] when you travel – and all of you travel a lot in Africa – you go to a hotel in the evening; before sleeping, you switch on the TV and you start zapping and you see SuperSport or BeIN or whatever, and you see that there is football everywhere. And if you have six – I don’t know – six channels that broadcast football in Africa, five of them broadcast European football and one of them broadcasts African football. And that’s already a little bit strange, right?

“But when you watch it, you can see that the European football which is broadcast – I am not just speaking about the Premier League or La Liga, but other leagues – they are played in nice stadiums, in nice infrastructure which look good, and when you zap, you see some African league match, in some countries, where you have people everywhere, cars inside the stadium, people standing … you don’t know what is happening. The match, which should start at 8 p.m., starts at 10 past 8, or maybe doesn’t start because it was postponed to the following day and nobody knows about it. So these are situations that, of course, affect the image of African football and that’s why we need to invest in infrastructure.

“Because when you want to sell a product, when you want to generate income, when you want to generate revenues, you need to offer something, you need to invest first. We have many investors here in the room; you know it. If you want to generate income, you need to invest, you need to believe in what you do and the basis for football is the infrastructure and the stadium, and my objective is to have in each African country – in each of the 54 African countries – at least one top-class stadium, at least one.”

Infantino then promised to raise $1 billion U.S. to build a quality stadium, costing $20-40 million each, in those countries which do not have one. Countries which have a good stadium can build training centers or smaller, regional stadiums.

“FIFA’s mission is to boost and develop football all over the world. And how do you develop football? How do you boost football? By investing in infrastructure. So it is easy for us to stand side-to-side with CAF, with the regional/zonal associations, with all 54 member associations of Africa, and go to the financial market and mobilize $1 billion, and guarantee that $1 billion with the money that is anyways going to Africa.”

He didn’t stop there: “Referees have to be above and beyond doubt and to do that we have to protect them. We will take 20 of the best African FIFA referees, professionalise them, and give them permanent, professional contracts. They should be the guardians of the rules of our game and we must protect them and make them totally autonomous. …

“This is something that has never been done anywhere in the world. And it is something that will have a serious impact on the credibility of football in Africa. And we need to do that because we need to de-politicize the whole situation. …

“We need to do something that the world will watch as something new, as something incredible, as something that is groundbreaking for refereeing in the world, and not only in Africa. That’s why you have to focus on the world and not, as the title here says, on Africa only.”

This is a serious commitment by FIFA to change the status of football in Africa. The headline of the story on the conference was “Infantino unveils FIFA action plan to rescue African football from itself.”

And he is not alone. Consider additional investments being made and events being held in Africa by the NBA, by World Athletics and the International Olympic Committee:

2020: Basketball Africa League starts in March

2020: World Athletics U-20 Championships in Nairobi (KEN) in July

2022: Youth Olympic Games in Dakar (SEN)

The Basketball Africa League is a joint venture of the NBA with the International Basketball Association (FIBA) and will have 12 teams playing five games each, in venues in Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. The finals will be in Kigali, Rwanda.

The World U-20 track & field Championships in Nairobi this summer could very well be a trial event for holding the 2025 World Athletics World Championships in Kenya. World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe has been enthusiastic about taking the biggest event in the sport there, in view of its brilliant history.

FIFA just completed a six-month mission with the CAF to end corruption in African football, which no doubt led to Infantino’s commitment to future development. Whether the continent is ready or not, the world of sport will bring a lot of support to Africa in the 2020s … and will expect a lot back. In the view of at least FIFA, the IOC and World Athletics, the only thing that will hold Africa back is Africa itself.

Rich Perelman

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