Black Africa produces many great players, but the powerbase of club football in the continent lies elsewhere, says James Copnall

The coach, of a sub-Saharan African team expected to challenge for the African Champions League title most years, was getting more and more depressed. He kept pausing the tape of his side’s last meeting with the reigning African champions, Al Ahly, then rewinding it to revel in his misery once more. “See that? See that Egyptian right-back?” he said, almost angry. “Look at the way he gets that cross past his man under heavy pressure, and it lands right on the attacker’s head. I love my boys, but I don’t think many of them could do that – let alone my right-back!” The game – like so many of late – ended in an Al Ahly victory. Coaches all over black Africa are getting used to losing to the Egyptians – and to north African sides in general.

When Al Ahly beat the Cameroon side Coton Sport of Garou over two legs in November, the Egyptians wrapped up their third title in four years, and a record sixth title overall. Al Ahly are an exceptional side, with many of the key players in the Egypt national team who have won the past two Africa Cup of Nations. The midfielders Ahmed Hassan (who came home after years in Turkey and latterly at Anderlecht this season, and scored in the second leg of the final) and Mohamed Barakat, the defender Waal Gomaa and above all the playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika are established internationals who could undoubtedly play for high-quality European sides. Instead they are concentrated in a team who have achieved one of the greatest feats in African club football history.

But Al Ahly’s dominance, exceptional though it is, also reflects a wider trend. North African club football is light years ahead of the club game played south of the Sahara at the moment. The one year in the past four Al Ahly did not win the Champions League, they lost the final to Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel. Etoile’s compatriots CS Sfaxien have won the past two Confederation Cups (the second continental club competition) and Moroccan and Tunisian teams won in 2005 and 2006 as well. You have to go back to 2004 to find a sub-Saharan team winning a continental club trophy, extraordinary given only one in ten African countries is from the Arab north.

“North African teams dominate us because of organisation, infrastructures, better administration and money,” says Mamadi Sékou Condé, a veteran Guinean sports journalist. “Take Guinea: not one of our clubs has its own stadium, or a decent training ground. Our players aren’t paid much, and often the club doesn’t even have a bus to drive the players to games.”

The situation is worse in some sub-Saharan countries, though considerably better in others. South African sides are among the lucky ones in terms of organisation and infrastructure – but the game there is going through a crisis, and the domestic league is not strong. Enyimba, the Nigerian side which won back-to-back Champions Leagues in 2003 and 2004, were financed by a state government boosted by oil revenues. ASEC Mimosas, from the economic capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, have a training ground many European teams would envy, and their academy has produced Kolo and Yaya Touré, among others. But both these continental giants are often forced to sell their best players.

North African teams have much more professional set-ups generally, from training pitches to the hotels the players stay in on away trips, to the wages the stars receive. “North African teams have a long history – they provided many players to the French first division when we were colonised by the French,” suggests Mohamed Moufig, a board member of the Moroccan Football Federation. “And the African teams south of the Sahara simply don’t have the money to compete with us.”

The higher quality of domestic football in North Africa, coupled with higher living standards in general, has another impact, too. Sub-Saharan African players all dream of playing in Europe, where they can earn money they could never hope to make at home. So hundreds of Nigerians play in Europe, alongside Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Ivorians and so on. This brawn drain leaves the domestic game weak. In contrast, many of the best Tunisians, Algerians and Egyptians prefer to stay at home, where they can earn reasonable money and play in a well organised championship. North African clubs often buy up decent sub-Saharans, too: the Angola internationals Flavio and Gilberto play for Al Ahly, and the Guinea midfielder Mohamed Sacko is one of several black Africans at Etoile du Sahel, for example. Twenty-two of the past 28 African club champions have been from North Africa, and it won’t be easy to break this cycle.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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