Untold Stories

Why SA clubs play second fiddle to North Africans

Numbers don’t lie, so they say! A glance into the list of the last 20 Caf Champions League winners confirms the yawning gap between North African clubs and their South African counterparts.

Since 2001, the prestigious continental title has ended up in North Africa 14 times, with Pitso Mosimane’s Al Ahly winning it eight times while Tunisia’s Esperance won it thrice. Outside the dominant region, Nigeria’s Enyimba, TP Mazembe and Mamelodi Sundowns have had fleeting feats in the prestigious competition.

FARPost features writer Mthokozisi Dube delves into some of the reasons why local clubs continue to play second fiddle to teams from the Maghreb region.

Massive investment

It is worth stating that seven of the top 10 wealthiest sports franchises in Africa hail from the northern part of the continent. Interestingly, recently crowned champions Ahly – who beat Kaizer Chiefs 3-0 on Saturday to capture their record 10th African title – top that list and are joined by their crosstown rivals Zamalek and Pyramids. Fellow North Africans – Tunisia’s Club Africain and Esperance, Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca, Algeria’s MC Alger – also make it into that list. South African giants Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns, as well as DRC’s TP Mazembe, complete that list.

Maverick administrator Senzo Mbatha, who currently serves as a football consultant for Tanzania giants Young Africans, says it is no secret that the game is built on huge piles of money invested directly into the veins of the clubs.

“We can’t downplay the role that money plays in football. North African clubs invest heavily in the entire structure,” Mbatha tells FARPost from his Dar es Salaam base.

Just to take it to the western coast of Africa, Enyimba are a perfect example of a club hugely affected by lack of adequate investment after briefly excelling after the turn of the millennium. The club’s chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu, who guided the Nigerian giants to back-to-back African titles in 2003 and 2004, concedes lack of a decent outlay is the reason Nigerian clubs struggle in Interclub competitions. In fact, no West African club has won the top continental title since Enyimba’s early 2000s feat.

“You talk about investment; you talk about a team that can buy a player for $1m [R15 million], you talk about a team that can pay a player $30,000, $50,000. These are the people Nigerian teams are competing with.

“Most clubs in Nigeria are underfunded, and our people keep assuming that Superman mentality.”

Player agent Felix Sapao is convinced Sundowns, the 2016 African champions, have dominated South African football because of the massive investment made by Patrice Motsepe, who now serves as the Caf president. However, with their colossal outlay, they still have to prove that they have the mettle to displace the likes of Ahly.

“If another club in South Africa wants to breach those heights, they also have to pay well, not to a few players but the whole squad,” Sapao tells FARPost.

Poor recruitment

With the transfer action in full swing locally, a fellow journalist teasingly questioned the calibre of players signed by Orlando Pirates, who tasted continental success in 1995, and their crosstown rivals Chiefs.

“The sad reality is that we’re questioning whether Pirates and Chiefs can challenge Sundowns in the domestic League with the signings they have made. How on earth would they challenge in the continent with the same players? Not a chance,” he said.

Bucs have roped in the Maritzburg United duo of Kwanda Mngonyama and Bandile Shandu, Goodman Mosele from Baroka FC and the unheralded Monnapule Saleng, who arrived from Free State Stars.

On the other hand, the Glamour Boys have snapped up goalkeeper Brandon Peterson, defenders Njabulo Ngcobo, Sibusiso Mabiliso, Sifiso Hlanti, and midfielders Phathutshedzo Nange, Austin Dube and Kgaogelo Sekgota.

“I think we could do better in terms of our recruitment. We’ve seen Sundowns going to South America and signing quality players. If you get three of those and top quality in the domestic market, you can compete in Africa,” Mbatha added.

Perhaps a comparison of the kind of signings Pitso Mosimane’s Al Ahly is chasing could show why there is such a gulf in quality.

“Al Ahly are chasing the signature of Raja Casablanca winger Soufiane Rahimi. The initial offer was $2 million [R30 million], but Raja asked for double that amount. Ahly have since offered Walter Bwalya and $2.5 million [R36.7 million],” MySoccer24.com editor, Ayman Atef, tells FARPost.

At just 25, the Moroccan international has played 45 interclub games and had 22 goal involvements. He has already won the Botola title, two Caf Confederations Cup titles and the Caf Super Cup. At international level, he won the CHAN title with the Atlas Lions last year.

On the other hand, it is interesting to note that none of the players signed by Chiefs or Pirates are full senior internationals. Neither do they have enough experience on the continent. 

Furthermore, the Red Devils’ biggest coup in recent years was the signing of Hussein El-Shahat, who started against Amakhosi at the weekend, from UAE side Al Ain for a fee equivalent to R70m in 2019.

 Retaining top talent

Sapao adds that while most top Sub-Sahara African players would kill to ply their trade in Europe, North Africans have an alternative to play at home and still earn top dollar.

“The money offered by North African clubs maintains their quality pyramid. It has been like that for a long time in North Africa. As such, the standard of the game is high. And the clubs retain most of their top quality so that they can compete with each other,” Sapao says.

For instance, El Shahat and Morrocan defender Badr Benoun are Ahly’s highest-paid players at Ahly. They both pocket a whopping $1 million [R14.6 million] annually.

Just to bring it closer to home, Sundowns’ Uruguayan ace Gaston Sirino’s gross earnings would have shot up to as much as R15 million per annum had he succeeded in joining Al Ahly last season. At Downs, he reportedly earns in the region of R4.8 million per annum.

Mbatha says for Ahly to hire Mosimane and his technical team is also testimony of how much they are success-driven. The former Mamelodi Sundowns mentor earns just about R54 million per annum, excluding win bonuses. At Sundowns, his annual salary was R18 million, excluding win bonuses.

Excellent youth development

Sven Vandenbroek, A Belgian who has coached in Zambia, Tanzania and now Morocco, notes that the “level is much higher” in North Africa. He credits that advancement to excellent facilities and good academies producing the best players.

“They are more complete players – technically, tactically, physically, in terms of power, intelligence of play and mentally. I also find them to have higher speed of execution and higher speed of thinking,” the AS FAR mentor tells FARPost from his Rabat base.

Interestingly, Amakhosi mentor Stuart Baxter described Ahly’s type of play as ‘a style that borders on a non-African type of football’. “They play a mix of Pitso [Mosimane’s] possession-based football and the more direct North African approach to the game,” he told BBC, adding that the Cairo giants are quick all over the field and play.

Atef seems to agree with the former Simba SC and Chipolopolo mentor, Vandenbroek, when he says players in Egypt are prepared thoroughly to fit into a suitable style.

“At a young age, players’ minds must be already set to move the ball automatically with almost one or two touches to the ball, and this results in controlling the whole game,” he tells FARPost from his Cairo base.

Casual attitude

Algeria-born Adel Amrouche, who has had coaching stints in North, East, West and Central Africa, says for players from countries at the northernmost part of the continent, there is pride at stake when they compete in interclub competitions.

“In North Africa, when they go to continental competitions, it’s a huge thing. In fact, when I coached in Algeria, players would not go out of their houses if they lost a game. They’d have to send someone to the shops for food because fans would harass them if they lost,” Amrouche, who recently parted ways with Botswana, tells FARPost.

Walid Ziani, an Algerian journalist with DZfoot.com, also adds that “teams who play in continental competitions plan

accordingly when recruiting players”. The same cannot be said of local clubs who seemingly limit their ambitions to challenging for the domestic title.

South Africa Football Association [Safa] Danny Jordaan notes that local clubs have not taken Caf competitions seriously for the longest time. He, however, believes that is changing.

“For many years, South African clubs did not take this competition seriously,” Jordaan tells FARPost. “Sundowns took a different position and took it very seriously and made it a priority, which changed some of the clubs’ attitudes. And when they won the Champions League, it became a big thing; everyone wanted a star. You see how Chiefs took the competition; there’s now a change.”

He believes local clubs have finally realised that the Champions League is a major indicator of their clubs on the continent and globally. “You get to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup. We’ll see a change. A change of attitude will definitely bring change.”

Not hungry enough

Cavin Johnson, Mosimane’s right-hand man at Ahly, adds that the mentality is different in Egypt. Having worked with the Mohamed El-Shenawys of this world, he feels players from countries that shape the top North of the African continent are hungry for football success. He also attributes their progress to extreme professionalism and focus.

“With all due respect, I feel our players aren’t hungry enough,” he told FARPost in a telephonic interview last month. “We need to improve our physical conditioning and social background. We need to up our game because we compete against others in Africa. We have the best run league on the continent, but we can still improve.”

Good structures and professionalism

Ziani believes “with money comes good structures and professionalism”. Amr Nageeb Fahmy, a reporter with Qatari media group beIN, concurs with him, adding that good infrastructure, strong Leagues and tactical advancement give North Africans the edge over their Southern counterparts.

In fact, Mbatha is convinced that because of their proximity to Europe, Arab nations on the continent have adopted the European style of management, clear development attitude and strong youth structures.

He concludes that the clubs that have had short-lived success in the Africa Safari paid the price. The likes of Sundowns, TP Mazembe and Simba pumped in a lot of money.

Therefore, it will seemingly take massive investment, spot-on recruitment, sound development structures and a change of attitude to usurp power from the North Africans. But, will that day ever come? Only time will tell!

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