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Africa’s newest club competition does not yet look how its founding fathers had first envisaged.
The brainchild of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and his Confederation of African Federations (CAF) counterpart Patrice Motsepe has been pared down from a 24-team mini-league and then knockout format to an eight-club knockout competition.
Its prize money for the winner has shrunk from $11.5m to $4m, and there is still no television broadcast deal – the games will be streamed on YouTube.
Until last week, the South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns were even banned from taking part by their country’s football federation, who cited fixture congestion. That would have been very embarrassing for Motsepe, a billionaire businessman who also happens to be the owner of the Sundowns.
But, after a late change of heart, the federation reversed its ban and a version of the inaugural African Football League finally kicks-off on Friday.
“The AFL is a titanic battle of strength versus strength between the giants of African football,” CAF said this week, ahead of the tournament opener in Tanzania’s capital where Simba SC face Egypt’s Al Ahly, the reigning African champions.
After quarterfinals and semifinals, a two-legged final will be played on November 5 and 11.
The FIFA-CAF partnership still intends the AFL to become a greatly expanded version next season, closer to its original vision.
And, as Nick Dall writes for Al Jazeera this week, many are viewing this inaugural iteration with interest – for its impact on the African game, and beyond.
Few would argue that African club football is in good shape. While the situation varies widely, the continent’s game is often held back by poor infrastructure, abuse of players’ rights, corruption, political interference, and the plundering of talented young players by European clubs.
In many places, the poor quality and the lure of watching the widely streamed English Premier League has led to a decline in interest in local teams. Even the CAF Champions League garners relatively little attention beyond the continent, and CAF is losing money.
For Infantino and Motsepe, the AFL is the solution; the idea being that Africa’s best clubs – usually also the richest, most popular, and most glamorous – play each other regularly, raising the quality and making the games more watchable, driving up interest and revenue.
The revenues are shared, to some degree, with every country and are intended to raise standards across the continent.
If the idea for the AFL sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because of the European Super League, which dramatically imploded within 48 hours of its announcement in 2021. The AFL was initially called the Africa Super League, until that name was jettisoned due to the contaminated connotations.
In some senses, the AFL is a very different beast: the ESL was a breakaway organisation that threatened the hegemony of FIFA and UEFA, the AFL is organised by CAF and FIFA. And the ESL was intended to be a closed shop of a select few teams, while the AFL is in theory a meritocracy, comprised of teams who earn their place on points.
But while the AFL is not a replacement for the CAF Champions League, they are designed to run concurrently, it is a rival of sorts – currently equalling the prize money, even in its stripped-back format.
A lot about the AFL remains unclear. How much of the revenues will be shared with other countries? Is any of it ring-fenced for football development? What is being done to mitigate the resulting fixture congestion?
But from what we know, it seems there is a danger of repeating two major follies from European football.
One danger is replicating the stark stratification of European football – both within leagues and between them – as the big clubs reap the financial rewards at the expense of smaller ones.
The other is that it could presage the return of a new kind of European Super League: renamed, repackaged, probably not technically a closed shop but still operating along similar lines – but under UEFA and FIFA control.
Indeed, the desire behind that kind of idea burns brightly among some in the highest echelons of football governance, as well as on the boards of some big European clubs.
As Clint Roper, general manager of South Africa’s Soccer-Laduma publication, told Al Jazeera on the AFL: “Is this not a litmus test to show the European teams who wanted to form a breakaway league that this kind of thing can be done via a governing body and still be very lucrative?”