Sense of FIFA influence hangs over Africa's football leader

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CAF president Patrice Motsepe speaks during a media conference at the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Throughout his election campaign and first year leading African football, Patrice Motsepe has struggled to shake off the perception of being under FIFA’s influence, particularly when it comes to the push by Gianni Infantino for biennial World Cups.

“We are not going to sink to the level of those who say that the people of Africa cannot decide for themselves and they need FIFA and (president) Gianni Infantino to tell us what is good for ourselves,” Motsepe said on Saturday. “We know what is in our interests.”

The Confederation of African Football president was attempting to again distance himself from the FIFA president. Next to Motsepe was Infantino, wearing a CAF face mask and fresh from attending a meeting of CAF’s 54 member associations on the eve of the African Cup of Nations final between Egypt and Senegal.

“My brother,” is how Infantino addressed Motsepe in a speech at a poolside dinner earlier in Cameroon in a video seen by The Associated Press.

A year ago, in the weeks before the South African mining magnate was elected in March, Infantino was flying across Africa and giving the impression of being a kingmaker.

Whatever Infantino discussed with African officials, Motsepe’s three rivals withdrew their candidacies in the weekend before what became an uncontested election to elevate the owner of Pretoria-based club Mamelodi Sundowns.

“When they asked me to be president of CAF," Motsepe recalled on Friday during a roundtable with reporters, “I said, ‘Are you guys mad. I don’t even attend meetings of the PSL (Premier Soccer League) board of governors.'”

Motsepe didn't respond directly to a question about who asked him to become president. He succeeded Ahmad Ahmad, who enjoyed Infantino's warm backing until being cast aside following a FIFA investigation into financial misconduct while running the Cairo-based CAF. Since then, the only confederation where Infantino has been able to find regular loyal backing is Africa, especially during FIFA’s fraught attempt to gain backing for World Cups being staged every two years instead of four years.

“We can’t agree more,” Motsepe stressed on Saturday with Infantino standing next to him. “We are very excited that we have Gianni Infantino and a FIFA that supports us on this issue.”

It is an isolated view. None of the other five confederations have endorsed doubling the frequency of World Cups. In interviews with the AP over the last week, the UEFA and CONMEBOL presidents have reinforced their concerns about the damage Infantino’s plans would cause to the global game.

“There is obviously a sports political dimension,” Infantino said. “We are seeing how can we make global football benefit from ... whether it’s a biennial World Cup or whether it’s another way of inclusive participation. This will be part of a third dimension.”

The suggestion of an alternative to the biennial plan was a more restrained pitch in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé than the speech Infantino delivered to European politicians in Strasbourg last week that was denounced for its crass tone invoking tragedy when touting a sporting and financial enterprise.

Infantino linked the need for more World Cups with giving “hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find, maybe, a better life but more probably death in the sea.”

The only significant public backing for the FIFA president came from Africa’s football leader. Motsepe claimed “several commentators unfortunately seem to have misunderstood” comments filmed for the world to watch.

“I think there’s also a bit of mischief because those who don’t support the FIFA World Cup every two years, they will go after him,” Motsepe said on Friday.

A day earlier, though, concerns were raised that staging a men's or women's World Cup every year “would create immeasurable damage and put in danger sport in general." That wasn't a Eurocentric view but from an Algerian sports leader, Mustapha Berraf, who leads the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa.

Much as Berraf stands behind IOC President Thomas Bach's stance, so does Motsepe alongside Infantino's championing of the proposition.

“We take positions based on principle,” Motsepe said. “And let me say this to you -- Gianni and I don’t agree on many things.”

Little disagreement is obvious, apart from perhaps the timing of the African Cup in the middle of the European season and the continent's top tournament not being played every two years.

It’s little surprise Motsepe seems to often give cover for Infantino, especially when CAF’s administration has been run since last year by Véron Mosengo-Omba — a university friend of Infantino’s who followed him from UEFA to FIFA in 2016.

Before then, for the second half of 2019, CAF was being effectively run by Fatma Samoura who was parachuted into the confederation as general delegate for Africa while also serving as FIFA secretary general.

Infantino has been a driving force for a Super League being launched for African clubs — separate to the continent’s Champions League — at the same time as disputing evidence he was linked to the European Super League project to split from UEFA that was hastily abandoned amid acrimony last year.

“I’m here to make a contribution to significantly improve the quality of African football," Motsepe said. “Nobody’s interested in watching the competition on TV when the quality is average at best."

Motsepe, with a net worth estimated by Forbes to be $3 billion, will often point to his business experience as the grounding for his integrity.

“The African leadership is neither ignorant nor naïve not to recognize that for us to succeed and grow, we need partnerships,” he said, “and FIFA is our most important partner.”


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