woes for African football

NAIROBI - As Africa prepares to host the 2010 World Cup finals for the first time in South Africa, not very much is there for a continent where managers and players share an equal dose of problems.

NAIROBI - As Africa prepares to host the 2010 World Cup finals for the first time in South Africa, not very much is there for a continent where managers and players share an equal dose of problems.

Although qualifiers are under way, old woes are still plaguing many national sides as they struggle to represent the continent at the showpiece.

With the rest of Africa making progress, football in East and Central Africa faces threats to its very survival.

A combination of corruption, fan apathy and government disinterest has weighed down the once thriving enterprise, leaving it at the mercy of feuding coaches and managers.

Save for Sudan, which has bounced back over the last year after making it into the semifinals of two recent African tournaments, others are languishing under a welter of woes.

"Ethiopian football is getting worse by the year," said sports journalist Hussein Abdulkeni after attending a top league match between champions St Georges and Adama City that attracted only a handful of fans in the capital Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has seen a big drop in attendance figures with only 8000 fans attending matches in the 35000-seater national stadium.

One main factor to blame is the growing popularity of foreign leagues relayed live by satellite feeds.

The clamour for the English, French, Italian and Spanish leagues has throttled interest in local football and is likely to slay the popular game.

According to official figures, the majority of matches played during this current season attracted only a few hundred spectators.

Football analysts here blame low fan numbers on lack of competition that stems from poorly-arranged fixtures.

In Kenya, matches are played in front of near-empty stadia, sometimes only match officials, including referees, are the only ones to watch.

Over the past years, feuding Kenya Football Federation officials have exchanged fisticuffs in public amid unending court cases.

In Mauritius, the football teams have been forced to allow fans to enter stadiums free of charge in a bid to attract crowds.

Many factors, mainly being financial hardship in many African countries, where almost half of the population live on less than a dollar a day, have helped bury the sport.

In Kenya and Ethiopia, where private investment in sport is almost non-existent, self-reliant community-based clubs have always struggled to stay afloat, let alone compete in local fixtures.

In the last five years, Kenya has seen nearly 10 community-based clubs fold due to lack of money for players' salaries.

"Football belongs to fans globally and if these clubs are not participating in the leagues, it is not possible for them to survive," said Bob Oyugi, a Kenyan national football coach.

Lack of consistency in African football is also to blame for falling African standards.

"Look at Burundi, they won the East and Central Africa junior and senior titles but where are they now," Oyugi lamented.

Oyugi, who coached former African Cup Winners Cup champions Gor Mahia in the 1990s, explicitly blames the Cairo-based African Football Confederation (CAF) for the present woes.

He said the 50-year-old continental governing body had ignored the region when it handed out its development incentives to its affiliates, saying the body had the tendency of favouring only West and North Africa teams.

"It is time Africa was split into two for the sake of development, with South Africa in charge of the eastern and southern African region and Egypt in charge of northern and western Africa," said Oyugi.

Nonsense, protested Nicholas Musonye, the general secretary of the Association of East and Central African Football Associations (Cecafa).

"It is not the responsibility of CAF or Cecafa to administer the running of the national federations," he said.

Musonye said it was only in Rwanda and Tanzania where football was growing because of political backing from presidents Paul Kagame and Jakaya Kikwete, who have helped to hire foreign coaches and funded the national team.

"That is a motivation that makes players feel honoured and proud playing for their country. Football is a powerful weapon to rally the masses and generate national spirit," he added.

Efforts to regionalise football in Mauritius have not succeeded after years of playing the game on ethnic lines. - Sapa-AFP