2022 was a significant year for African football. It was a benchmark for the women’s game and a year that may mark the first real move into African football as a business rather than football as development. It ended with some thrilling matches at the men’s World Cup in Qatar, proving the real progress made by teams from African countries.
The first full year of a return to the sport after the COVID pandemic, 2022 has shown that the African game is able to grow and claim its own space in world football beyond the headlines generated by star African players like Mo Salah and Sadio Mané playing for high profile European clubs.
Each of the six key events I’ve noted here presented a watershed moment. We may not all agree on the order, but can be sure they will be talked about for years to come.
Afcon wins new respect
Many top African footballers play for clubs in Europe. Late in 2021, the European Club Association threatened to prevent key players from representing their countries at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament in 2022. They cited COVID-19 problems and conflict with the scheduling of league football in Europe. The Conversation Africa projected that the English Premier League alone stood to lose up to 37 players to Afcon.
But the African countries stood their ground and insisted on the release of the players. Importantly, several key figures in football, including European club manager Patrick Vieira, demanded that Afcon be respected. In the end, the European clubs bowed and released their players to participate in Africa’s most glamorous football tournament.
Afcon went on to achieve record numbers in fan engagement, with over 1 billion video views worldwide and unprecedented social media attention.
Women’s football scores big
Club tournament the African Women’s Champions League is barely two years old and there was no prize money on offer in 2021. But, in a stunning announcement, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) offered a purse for 2022. Winners now receive US$400,000 and the runner-up and third-placed teams US$250,000 and US$200,000. These are noteworthy figures, even compared to the prize for a club winning the Women’s Champions League in Europe. There, the published prize for 2022 was US$230,000 or £200,000. ASFAR from Morocco triumphed over Mamelodi Sundowns from South Africa.
The prize money demonstrates a genuine move by Caf to improve women’s football on the continent and it will surely trigger more participation by women in the sport across various African countries. With such interest, media will follow to further raise the game’s profile.
Africa makes its mark at the World Cup
Before the 2022 men’s football World Cup, Africa had previously presented three teams at the quarter final stage – in 1990 (Cameroon), 2002 (Senegal) and 2010 (Ghana). Morocco joined that list in 2022 and then went a step further, making history by becoming the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final. However, Morocco reaching this zenith was not the only story for Africa at the 2022 World Cup.
This World Cup marked the only finals in which Africa had won eight games in regulation time. The previous highest total was four – in 2002 and 2010. This clearly marks major progress, more than a 75% win increase.
Video assistant referees introduced
Although video assistant referees are now a common part of global football, referees watching the game on video screens was new at Afcon in 2022. The system was used for the first time in the final stage and proved crucial in helping match officials make decisions.
Several games were decided by video analysis following video replays. It was critical in deciding a knockout stage game between Nigeria and Tunisia, for example. A video replay led to the disqualification of a Nigerian player as his team chased an equalising goal. Although the system has been challenged at other tournaments, it was considered a success at Afcon.
New powers in the women’s game
Nigeria had dominated African women’s football for so long that for years there was no contest at the continental championship level. However, the hard work of countries like Morocco, South Africa and Ivory Coast has gradually started to pay off.
At this year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon), Ivory Coast failed to qualify, beaten by Nigeria despite its credible performance at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. However, Nigeria found that its dominance at Wafcon had come to an end. Nigeria was eliminated by hosts Morocco at the semi-final stage and then beaten by Zambia in a tough third place game. Morocco, playing eye catching football throughout the tournament, lost to South Africa in the final. South Africa had earlier dealt Nigeria a blow at the group stage.
These performances and results demonstrate the spreading of top level talent and teams across the continent.
A brand new league
The biggest development of the year, however, has to be Caf’s announcement of a new league for African premier clubs, starting in 2023. The lucrative new Africa Super League involves the continent’s best clubs, some countries providing as many as three teams and others none.
This competition is made for TV, designed to generate revenue from deep-pocket sponsors through broadcast rights. The tournament will replace the African Champions League as the continent’s premier club competition and will be dominated by the big North African clubs from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. With top West African players migrating to Europe and Asia in recent years, the North Africans have dominated.
In the long term this should help develop stronger, better funded African clubs, better able to keep some top talents at home. If Caf is able to pull this off, it will be a significant watershed in African football.
Caf’s new leadership, elected in 2021, came in with an ambitious ten-point plan to revitalise African football. It hasn’t been easy, given the state of finances that it inherited, including the loss of a major sponsorship. Yet, its activities in 2022 have demonstrated the potential to dramatically open new vistas.
Chuka Onwumechili, Professor of Communications, Howard University