With Egypt, the 2010 winners, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Algeria – all aristocrats of the African game – failing to qualify for next year’s finals, the continental game will certainly wear an unknown face in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. But there is a fight taking place off the playing pitch that is just as intriguing.
The decision of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to centralise and directly control the sale of all Nations Cup qualifying matches, thereby denying the 53 national federations making up CAF the right to sign their own television deals with preferred broadcasters, has provoked a furore that is unlikely to end any time soon.
Nigeria and South Africa, the two biggest TV markets for CAF south of the Sahara, if not the entire continent, could not watch selected telecasts of their own games in the qualifying series, after French broadcasting company SportFive got the right to centrally market the games on behalf of CAF.
Football fans in Nigeria had to rely mostly on live, “minute by minute” internet reports to follow their penultimate qualifier against the Barea of Madagascar in Antananarivo on 4 September.
For a football-crazy country that lives, breathes and eats the game – and the fortunes of its struggling national team, the Super Eagles – the television blackout was a bizarre scene in a theatre production of the patently absurd. And fans in the continent’s most populous country had company in their misery, as South Africans fans twiddled their thumbs as Bafana-Bafana played against the Mena of Niger in their crucial away tie in Niamey.
The TV deal the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had with the South African Football Association (SAFA), which gave them access to all of the country’s home qualifying games, as well as put them in a position to buy, at favourable rates, the rights to their away games, was truncated by the emergence of SportFive, who insisted on completely new deals. SportFive reportedly demanded nearly $700,000 (R5m) from SABC for the rights to broadcast the 4 September game, with the national broadcaster only willing to pay $280,000 (R2m).
“The going rate for matches involving top ten African teams is around R1.4 million ($195,000) maximum. The SABC was even willing to make a better offer [than] the going rate… but the rights holder was unwilling to accept the offer made by the SABC,” the organisation said in a statement.
With just hours before the game in Niamey, SABC reportedly agreed on a fee with SportFive, but the satellite link failed and the live match could not be transmitted.
In Nigeria, where matches involving the national team are normally transmitted, terrestrially, by Africa Independent Television (AIT) and on satellite by SuperSport – with both having valid and subsisting contracts with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) – both rejected, like SABC, to pay what they regarded as extortionate rates to transmit the game against Madagascar.
“We are not going to be held to ransom by SportFive,” a manager of one of the broadcasters, who sought anonymity, told New African.
The last but one Nations Cup home qualifier, against Ethiopia in Abuja, which is normally produced by SuperSport, with clear and sharp pictures, was subsequently done by NTA, the national broadcaster, with backing from SportFive, even though the NTA lack the equipment and technical know-how to produce high quality telecasts.
And to make its point, SuperSport did not hesitate to buy the rights for Nigeria’s friendly international against the Lionel Messi-led Argentina, played before a sell-out crowd in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which took place 48 hours after the Nations Cup qualifier on 4 September.
In an official response from CAF to New African, as far back as 7 April, on the controversial issue, which was the subject of a stormy CAF general assembly in Zurich, Switzerland, on the eve of the last FIFA presidential election, this is what they had to say:
“The commercial rights belong to CAF in full compliance and as indicated in the competition regulations, Chapter 26 ‘Broadcasting and Publicity Rights’, Article48: ‘Local broadcasting and publicity rights, during the preliminary phase are the property of CAF. It may cede them free of charge to the associations…’ This article was adopted by the General Assembly of CAF held in Accra in 2008.
“CAF has communicated to all member associations on numerous occasions through eight (8) circulars from 2007 onwards to ensure that none of them enter into unauthorised commercial contracts with other parties to allow the enforcement of the CAF Executive Committee’s decision for the CAN 2012 qualifiers onwards.
“CAF reiterated that the centralisation of the media rights is an executive decision taken on September 23rd 2010.”
But does CAF’s executive committee have the legal authority, through their September 2010 decision, to make such a change to commercial arrange-ments that fundamentally affect, in a negative way, several of its 53 members, when it was never ratified by the general assembly of CAF?
For the smaller nations with less lucrative markets, a centralisation of the rights will improve their fortunes. But for the major countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Ghana, Tunisia and Morocco, it will certainly mean less income, as the sharing formula is certain to mean a big cut in earnings. Article 17 (1) of the CAF Statutes states that:
“The General Assembly is the SUPREME AUTHORITY [our emphasis] of CAF. It defines general policies and takes the necessary decisions for their implementation.”
And what are the powers of the executive committee? Let’s take a look at Article 23(1) of the same Statutes:
“The Executive Committee shall be responsible for the EXECUTION OF THE POLICIES AND DECISIONS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY (emphasis, once again, ours), the management and the administration of CAF.”
The current scenario strongly suggests that CAF’s executive committee put the legal cart before the horse by centralising the sale of the rights without the express consent of its bosses – the 53 member nations of the General Assembly.
“The executive committee of CAF made the new TV arrangements without the approval of the general assembly, so they do not stand up legally and should be thrown out,” commented an FA vice-president opposed to the new deal.
Any federation or association wanting to reverse the executive fiat of CAF’s exco, would certainly have a good case to fight at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
But the bigger question is: What will the rights for the matches in the 2012 tournament proper cost?
And will their prohibitive cost – as they certainly will be, judging by the cost of qualifying games – mean that several countries across the continent will be, once again, denied the pleasure of watching Africa’s football festival?
We shall see.