By Gerard Akindes
The ‘Indomitable Lions of Cameroon qualified for the seventh time and played at this year’s Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in Brazil. This seventh qualification, a record of participation for African countries, indeed a sign that Cameroonian football is one of the most dominant football factions of the continent since the independence in the 1960s. Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Algeria, the other representatives of Africa, with two to three initial participations are also power houses of African football. Considering the difficulties and challenges a team has to overcome to qualify in Africa, this is an important achievement and a moment of national pride that one cannot dismiss. In fact only ten percent of African national teams qualify for the World Cup.
But trouble is underfoot in terms of proper management and the cost of maintaining a national team. Unfortunately the Lions and later the Black Stars from Ghana and the Super Eagles from Nigeria have brought unwanted attention to their dysfunctional management, specifically regarding player bonuses. Before flying to Brazil this year, the Lions once again disputed their leadership about bonuses at the World Cup. Year after year, Cameroonian footballers and their leaders have exposed their conflicts openly before or during the competitions. Although this recurring spectacle can be distressing, the problem is not unique to Cameroon. Ghana and Nigeria by the end of the first round of the World Cup in Brazil displayed similar patterns with Cameroon with refusal to practice if promised bonuses were not paid. These teams’ internal crises bring shame to African teams and their supporters but also frustration and disgust about their management. However, past this first level of reactions and feelings, these crises bring to our attention the amount of money involved and the difficulties surrounding team management in an African context.
One of the most troubling elements in the continual bonus debacle with the Lions and many other African teams is the inability of the managers to take the lead in establishing a precise scale of bonuses for the team and plan for the money to be available ahead of time. To develop such scales would require that the administrators keep a thorough, transparent, and well-planned budget over several years. Therein, apparently, lies one of the major problems. It is concerning that there may be a total lack of long-term planning. Of course financial uncertainties within football associations often make it difficult to pay for the cost of national teams and have the bonuses available before the end of the competitions.
The main question is: who is accountable enough to establish the budgets in advance? Whether it is the federation, the ministries of sports or finance, or the president of the country? It is time to surround national teams with professional and responsible budget planning. These are teams participating in internationally recognized competitions; the world is watching. Surely it is possible to establish accurate advance budgeting, especially when one realizes that under the pressure of boycotts, the money is finally paid to the players. But in contrast, the boycott method has become the standard for African teams. Lack of trust between players and their administration is a further troubling and aggravating factor. The teams’ leadership does not have much credibility in the eyes of the players and the public. Furthermore, the recurrence of the unpaid or partially paid promised bonuses seems to be a consistent fact within African football. Hence there is no reason to have confidence in management often suspected of not keeping promises. The lack of trust and credibility—beyond the bonuses—has become a fact when dealing with sports-governing bodies in Cameroon and in a lot of African countries. Why is this so? One reason might be that a quick overview of many African federations shows that reaching the head of a federation is not the result of a person’s vision and commitment to the development of the discipline. Very often what is at stake is acquiring a social and political status and stature; the potential for a political career. Leading a sport federation is about satisfying personal ambitions, gaining political power, and enjoying material and economic privileges.
Even if an African team had the perfect management, there’s still the hurdle of the cost to have a team. The cost of managing national teams in the country and playing at an event like the World Cup is difficult for the majority of African countries. These are regions challenged by significant problems in infrastructure, education, health, and other social and security priorities. It would be irrational to ignore the financial burden that participation in a World Cup or any other international competition can represent to an African country. Players with European clubs appreciate traveling conditions equivalent to what the players are accustomed to in Europe. These costs, such as private jets, luxury hotels, first-class flights, and wages plus match bonuses are beyond the reach of ordinary African workers. Picking up the tab amplifies the economic pressure on African federations and governments.
And what of the bonus amounts requested by the African players? The players’ bonus requests have generally no common measure with the living standard of the compatriots of the country they represent. Consequently, there is a level of indecency in the assertions of the players; the amounts claimed present some economical irrationality. However, the perceived team mismanagement and lack of administration transparency can be used to heighten the insistent tone of the players’ bonus claims.
The economic logic of sport suggests that compensation for successful players should derive from sponsors, ticket sales, and television rights. In developed economies, the high income of footballers can only be justified by these revenues. In the context of African countries, none of these revenues (when they exist) can offset the costs incurred by national teams’ preparations and participation in major tournaments. Sponsors (often mobile phone companies) and television rights may make up the African Football Confederation (CAF) or FIFA participation bonuses to help absorb some of the costs of participation. But the preparation cost and the remuneration of professional staff, as often desired by all federations, remain dependent on a budget allocated by the government.
This amount can appear exorbitant; however, it is insignificant compared to national budgets and also other extravagances of politicians and parliamentarians. These leaders often receive unseemly salaries, unjustified relative to the average living standard of the people they are supposed to represent. The salaries of politicians do bring some relative meaning to the salary demands of professional athletes. At least athletes such as the Lions bring a positive visibility to their nation. There is a unique feeling of nationalism that only sport can provide to a country’s people. Perhaps it is too hard to expect politicians to provide citizens with that kind of pride. Nevertheless, seeing the salaries of both politicians and athletes side by side provides a comparative perspective that is hard to ignore.
So that point brings the discussion around full circle that once again this year, the Lions Indomitable of Cameroon, the Black Star of Ghana and the Super Eagles of Nigeria have had to display publically the limitations of their management. To be fair to the players, it’s not just the African teams with such trouble; but their teams are the most publicized. The Lions’ inevitable protests raise more than ever the question of the ability of African countries to maintain a national team. These teams show how complex the issue is and how difficult it will be to overcome the problem. Meanwhile the public is given a ring-side seat to the confrontation, watching federation administrators (often amateurs motivated by political aspirations) in a struggle with players (who see their competitors managed professionally).
Conflict and friction will likely remain between management and the teams because there is no training and preparation for professional sports administrators. Eventual payment of the bonuses does appease the players, but that method is not solving the structural difficulties. The hope is that football management on the continent overcomes the real challenges with vision and planning as these challenges have political, economic, and structural roots, major societal transformations are prerequisites. As long as strategies of the moment and immediacy erected as political program and management philosophy the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon and other African teams will continue to protest for bonuses.