Have you noticed just how much football is resistant to change? The sport usually claims that it is maintaining tradition. Unfortunately, this stick-in-the-mud mindset has left us with a sport seemingly full of contradictions.
The world around us keeps changing but football traditionalists pretend things are unchanging. For example, Manchester United is known as the club of North West England but it is really a company registered in the Cayman Islands.
Things will begin to make sense when football fans accept and embrace the fact that the sport has evolved. Money is not ruining football, it ruined it years ago. In fact, forget VAR, the introduction of goal-line technology in 2012 was effectively the end of the people’s game.
Football used to abide by the principle that the game played by professionals is the same one that you play with your friends. The technological tools introduced at the professional level are a few reasons why it is no longer the case.
Therefore, what should we do?
Football stakeholders should consider new thinking about football. It would serve Africa very well. One of the reasons that the football industry in our continent fails to find a breakthrough is because we hold onto outdated traditions with little justification. We do things because that is how we found Europeans doing them.
Get rid of promotion and relegation
Promotion and relegation in the football pyramid is one of the practices we maintain that, in fact, should be done away with. Do you know why football leagues relegate three teams? Why not four or five? There is no good reason whatsoever. It is an arbitrary number that became the norm.
There is also nothing sophisticated about how promotion and relegation became a thing for football leagues.
It all started in England. Back in the late 1800s, there were a lot of football leagues competing for legitimacy in that country. Many of these leagues decided to merge. As such, promotion and relegation became a better compromise than dissolving football clubs.
This model was then maintained to give lower-ranked teams in leagues important matches to play. Almost everyone in the World readily adopted the English football league system.
Thankfully, a few football leagues have shunned this format and are a compelling case for football leagues in Africa to get rid of promotion and relegation. The most renowned closed league is the Major League Soccer (MLS). MLS adopted the closed league system of professional sport in America, which just so happens to be the most commercially successful sports league model.
Mexico’s Liga MX has followed suit by suspending promotion and relegation for 5 seasons. I will be disappointed if this does not entice any African league to rethink its situation.
Lower league football does not make sense
A tiered football league system only makes sense in places where there is a depth of well-supported football teams. There is no Germany or England in Africa. The only country that has proper local football support is Algeria.
Otherwise, no Africa enjoys enough public interest in local football to properly sustain lower league football. FIFPro findings already reveal that enough top flight leagues in Africa to be jungles (pun intended) where players are not paid on time, referees are assaulted and nobody is accountable for spending football money.
If this doesn’t convince you of just how much interest in domestic football is lacking in Africa, note that no football league in Africa averages 10,000 fans per match. Algeria, Morocco and South Africa may be close to this but there is no verifiable data proving that they do.
In fairness, only a handful of football leagues in the world even enjoy average attendances of more than 20,000 fans per match. But this is an argument for how inappropriate it is to continue propping up lower league football in most places in the world. Football fandom is reserved for the biggest clubs. Commercial gain in the sport is also driven by these big clubs. Therefore, it is an easy connection to make that Africa should focus on this area with the most growth prospect.
A closed league is the starting point for league administrators in Africa to consider much more viable and interesting league formats.
A suggestion that has always seemed an obvious go-to solution, for me, is drastically reducing the number of teams in a league. This will aid African leagues to achieve similar outcomes to the closed leagues in America. Football leagues would benefit from a concentration of talent, increased average payout per club and a more attractive league since only relevant sides will be left.
Countries like Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania and even South Africa will not miss a thing if they were to decide to have their top flight leagues at 10 or 12 clubs.
What about the concern that doing away with relegation would breed complacency or enable the American concept of tanking? This is a mistaken fan-lensed perspective. The players, coaches and administrators are professionals. They are incentivized to perform by extrinsic rewards. They need the bonus payment, they are on the lookout for a better offer and they have professional pride as is the case for anyone doing a job.