If the Chinese perfected the art of stadium diplomacy long ago, the new realities of African football have nullified them. The fights for TV rights now pit French and Qatari broadcasting companies against disgruntled Egyptians and well-heeled CAF officials. By Vinesh Parmar.
As you fly into Ndola, the small, restless city at the heart of Zambia’s Copperbelt, the concrete wings of the Levy Mwanawasa stadium stick out in the sullen landscape on the city’s edge, in a construction reminiscent of many across the continent.
Following the national team, Chipolopolo’s AFCON victory in 2012, interest in them had reached decibel levels not experienced in
nearly two decades. The brandnew Levy Mwanawasa arena – the national stadium at the time – was to serve as the theatre for a nation’s hysterical football dreams.
Hervé Renard, protagonist-in-chief of Zambia’s AFCON heroics, had football fever running so high that attendance at the stadium’s inaugural international match exceeded its 40,000 capacity. People clambered over the stadium’s edge to worship at the feet of the new gods in their new Chinese-built stadium. The hosts won 1-0 in that game against Ghana, and Zambia’s football future had never looked more promising.
Five years later, the stadium stands deserted. Since that win over the Black Stars, the crowds of stadium-goers have thinned to a trickle; attention has now been diverted to the 50,000-seater Heroes stadium in the country’s capital, Lusaka, completed in 2014.
The arching roofs over the east and west stands of the Levy Mwanawasa stadium are a familiar feature of stadiums across Africa. The Stade de l’Amitié in Libreville, Gabon, seen in 2012 and at this year’s AFCON, is a polished version of the one built five years ago in Zambia.
The similarities are no coincidence. Completed within five months of each other, both were the work of the Shanghai Construction Group, and were financed through China’s Ministry of Commerce.
It’s a familiar theme across the continent.
Chinese influence, and its accompanying long-term debt prospects, takes many forms: standard gauge railways, giant dams built on soft loans – with repayment terms mired in secrecy – and grandiose stadiums, white elephant monuments to football’s gods.
Welcome to the world of Chinese stadium diplomacy. A hallmark of Sino-African relations in the solidarity days of Third World non-alignment, the Chinese in the 1970s and ’80s created a foothold on the continent through the construction of national stadia. Temporarily retreating in the 1990s as they consolidated their domestic industrial push, Chinese stadium diplomacy roared back to Africa in the 2000s. Except this time, it was to encounter a continent in the grip of fundamental changes – at least as far as the consumption of football is concerned.
Stadium diplomacy was predicated on the expectation of mutual rewards, explains Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford, who has written extensively on the subject. “Stadium diplomacy came about because it has been a way for China and African nations to align their interests,” says Professor Chadwick.
“When African nations are in the international spotlight, they have been keen to show that they are modern, progressive and capable of hosting events in state-of-the-art facilities.”
When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) introduced the 16-team tournament format nearly two decades ago, it spiked the demand for new stadiums built to international standards. Where host nations for AFCON had required two world-class football stadiums, the new format now meant that hosts would need a minimum of four arenas. With cash in chronically short supply to finance quick turnaround ventures, it was the Chinese that threw a lifeline to African host governments. Consider this: since the 2002 AFCON in Mali, there have been 23 venues around the continent that have either received a facelift or been built from scratch. Of these, at least 15 were developed by the Chinese.
The convenience and reliability of outsourcing stadium construction to China has only served to deepen existing Sino-African relations. That it has pushed up debt levels across sub-Saharan African – to well north of $100 billion according to some estimates – is not considered worrying.
“The CAF doesn’t pay attention to who is building. What is important is that the stadiums keep to our specifications. It is the government of each country that chooses who builds the stadiums.” – Issa Hayatou
According to Professor Chadwick, investment on this scale appears to be “driven more by vanity than rational economic decision making”, leaving African nations with “white-elephant assets”, especially because these stadium remain largely neglected and commercially unviable once the continental tournament has ended. In the prevailing climate of sluggish economic growth occasioned by commodity price slumps and growing indebtedness, these stadiums are extravagances that the continent could do without.
The attitude adopted at an institutional level does not do much to help. CAF president, Issa Hayatou, has been quoted as saying, “The CAF doesn’t pay attention to who is building. What is important is that the stadiums keep to our specifications. It is the government of each country that chooses who builds the stadiums.”
Requirements such as the minimum 20,000 capacity of new stadiums (exempted at AFCON 2015) elevate the costs of construction, forcing ticket prices up as hosts scramble to recoup some of the costs, but ultimately expose, for the millions of TV audiences around the continent and beyond, the embarrassment of thin local interest in the competition from host-nation fans.
CAF’s secretary general, Hicham El Amrani, speaking to the BBC, outlined one of the biggest problems, saying, “The main issue that sometimes make Nations Cup grounds hard to fill is the capacity of away fans to travel – whether for financial and logistical reasons, [or because of] visa issues and hotel availability. These are factors we are working on.”
Without external assistance, there exists little incentive for travelling fans to make the commitment, considering there is not a huge culture of watching football at stadiums domestically, with the obvious exception of the national team. This has existed to the detriment of the tournament for some time, without major concern on the part of African football’s administration.
Hosting AFCON every two years replicates a flawed formula: stadiums remain stubbornly empty and travelling fans stay away either because of visa issues or the sheer cost of paying for a month-long bonanza. At the same time, revenues raised from TV rights accrue to CAF rather than
host nations, even as the latter are burdened in the long run by the costs of stadium construction. While CAF should be in charge of marketing the game and sharing out revenues for the benefit of football development across the continent, it has concentrated on the former to the detriment of the latter.
There may be an explanation for this complacency. In 2015, CAF signed a reported $1bn deal with Lagardère for their marketing and media rights through to 2028, marking a long relationship with the French distributor and a $70m annual increase in revenue. The most obvious sign of that has been the 166% growth of the AFCON winner’s prize money to $4m.
The relationship between CAF and the Paris-based firm is currently being scrutinised by the Egyptian Competition Authority (ECA). They have referred CAF for prosecution because of Lagardère’s alleged breach of anti-competition rules involving Qatari sports broadcasting behemoth beIN Sports, over the sale of broadcast rights within Egypt. This could play a decisive role in the March elections for the CAF presidency.
A statement by the ECA read thus: “[The Lagardère contract] has led to the elimination of competition in the different sectors of the broadcasting market… [necessitating the] immediate termination of the CAF/Lagardère agreement within the Egyptian market.” Lagardère and CAF did not respond to interview requests for this article.
The Qatari company’s battle with Lagardére is indicative of the emerging commercial battles for Africa’s massive TV audience.
beIN may be aggrieved in Egypt; elsewhere it is they who have priced out national broadcasters from televising their own national team’s games on terrestrial television.
In Algeria the government were unable to show the 2017 AFCON tournament on its state broadcaster because beIN were charging $16m for screening rights.
The ECA would want the CAF-Lagardère contract terminated in Egypt and reopened for tender, a possibility viewed positively by some experts, and one which is bound to have repercussions far beyond Egypt. However, Sarah Ochwada – a sports lawyer with the Kenyan Olympic Committee – does not subscribe to this theory. Prior to the unravelling of this, Presentation – an Egyptian broadcasting company – revealed that they bid $1.2bn for the rights that CAF sold to Lagardère.
“In my opinion,” says Ochwada, speaking in a personal capacity, “this entire process was begun because an Egyptian firm lost the opportunity to buy the broadcasting rights and are now attempting to strong-arm CAF into diluting the rights it has already sold to Lagardère under the guise of anti-competition violations. “A re-tender in this instance would
therefore be unlikely,” Ochwada explained.
CAF’s refusal of a higher offer is not a curious case if considered generally. “In most sports rights contracts you will have a renewal clause whereby parties indicate that within a specific period before the initial contract lapses, the rights buyer will have the right to make a first offer before the seller entertains offers from any other parties,” says Ms Ochwada.
Regardless of what sums the CAF’s marketing rights are sold for, questions remain over its ability to manage the revenue. According to the latest publicly available records, money spent on administrative costs and meetings, $5.3m, matched budgetary allocations for technical development expenses ($5.53m). Some argue there is insufficient attention to devising coherent plans to develop local talent and improve
the different facets of the game.
In a move that was questioned by the global football establishment and celebrated by the fringe nations, FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup may arguably do more for African football than any of CAF’s recent efforts.
Whether the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s motivations were for personal or political gain, he provided the continent with schemes like the Goal project, that has helped develop federation headquarters and training centres. But blueprints for expansion don’t work if plans are not nurtured sufficiently.
CAF lacks the moral authority or assertion to ensure the development structures grow the continental game.
The case of Kenya captures the extent of this administrative failing. Over three phases, since 2004, the Kenyan FA received over $1.5m towards the Goal project. Nearly a third of that was put towards Kandanda House, which was meant to be their headquarters and the centre from which they could preside over a successful plan, that involved training referees, coaches and youth teams. The building was left abandoned, a glaring
reminder of misplaced finances and
This fundamental lack of guidance from local football federations is indicative of a greater malaise on the part of the sport’s governing bodies on the continent. CAF lacks the moral authority or assertion to ensure the development structures grow the continental game. Without this direction, national football associations travel on divergent paths to reach a scenario far away from the development of the continent’s prodigious footballing talent.