Can CAF pull off the Women’s Champions League?

The decision by CAF to launch the women’s Champions League was a welcomed move. But their track record on how they have treated women’s football in the past does not inspire confidence.

The Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) women football plan seems to be tearing at the seams even before it begins. 

The strategy is aimed at improving women’s football in the continent to ensure that national teams can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world. One of CAF’s aims is to create more playing opportunities by adding more competitions to their calendar. To this end, the confederation announced the launch of the CAF Women’s Champions League, the first inter-club competition for women in Africa. 

But, in the same breath, CAF announced the cancellation of the 2020 Women’s Afcon, which they hadn’t even assigned a host. All this while they bent over backwards to accommodate the men’s tournament (that has been postponed to 2022). Isha Johansen, who sits on CAF’s organising committee for women’s football, defended the decision by saying, “there were circumstances that were beyond our control which made it difficult for CAF to organise it and don’t get me wrong here, all options were explored but to no avail.”

The challenges caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic have hit women’s football the hardest in the continent. Moving the African Nations Championship, for home-based men’s players, and the Afcon, while cancelling women’s competitions, implies that men’s competitions are more important to CAF. 

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The cancellation of the Women’s Afcon will have a ripple effect on several teams in the continent. Zambia are an example of this. They will represent the continent at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The Copper Queens haven’t played in a tournament since the 2019 Cosafa Women’s Championship in South Africa where they finished in second place. This means there’s a likelihood that Bruce Mwape’s side will only get to compete once they get to Japan, which will lower their chances of a successful campaign at the Games. 

CAF are taking a gamble by making the 2022 edition, which will double up as the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup qualifier, as the test run of the increased number of participants from eight to 12 countries. Hosting the event this year would have helped the confederation iron out any problems of an upscaled competition. The cancellation of this year’s tournament has left a sour taste in the mouths of many players on the continent. 

‘CAF doesn’t take women’s football seriously’ 

“CAF should have rescheduled it to benefit everyone,” said Ghanaian defender Linda Eshun. “They rescheduled the men’s game. I know we can’t compare the money that’s involved in the men’s [to that in the] women’s game. But I am not saying CAF are biased towards the men’s game.” 

Nigeria’s goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi wasn’t as diplomatic. “CAF doesn’t take women’s football seriously. Why cancel the African Women’s Championship? 2022 is too far. Teams won’t be tested. We don’t play friendlies, we won’t keep fit. They should have postponed it to next year. It doesn’t sound good that there won’t be competitions until then,” said Oluehi. 

CAF secretary general Abdelmounaïm Bah downplayed the impact of the tournament’s cancellation. “I’m not sure that cancelling this edition of the Women’s Afcon will have a bad impact on the performance of our teams,” he said in a virtual press conference with the South African Football Journalists’ Association. 

“What we are trying to put in play is a clear strategy to develop women’s football in Africa. We care about women’s football. We want to see better results at the international level. We want to develop women’s football. We want professional leagues, this is why we have this strategy. We want to give more opportunities for girls and women to play.”

The Women’s Champions League will be contested by eight teams in two groups of four. Each of the six CAF zones – north zone, zone west A, zone west B, central zone, central-east zone and southern zone – will host qualifiers to decide who will represent the region. The six winners, along with a team from the host nation, and an additional club, will make up the eight representatives. The tournament will be held annually in the second half of the year, giving players more exposure and tougher competition. 

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Ghana international Eshun got spotted for Iceland’s Vikingur during the 2014 Women’s Afcon in Namibia. She joined Vikingur in the 2015 season and has been playing there since. “It [the women’s Champions League] will promote women’s football in the continent. Players will get international exposure since the league is going to be on TV. Europeans will get to watch and see players,” said Eshun. 

The introduction of the Champions League is a welcome relief for a lot of players who wish to compete with their peers from other countries at club level. 

“Players have been praying for the Champions League. Teams in Nigeria will become more competitive because they will want to represent Nigeria. Hopefully, it will launch, we want to see it come. It will be the greatest joy for everyone,” said the Rivers Angels’ goalkeeper. 

The state of women’s football in the continent 

However, the challenge is that there’s only a handful of countries that have professional leagues in the continent. Nigeria, Ghana, Lesotho and Zambia are among the few countries that have invested in getting professional football going. Most players in the continent do not get paid to play football in their respective leagues and at best receive stipends. 

Ghana, whose 16-team league has been running since 2012, has a situation where not all the clubs pay players a salary. Sponsorship and marketing are still the biggest impediments to making women’s football financially viable. This filters down to how teams are run and in some cases leads to club owners dipping into their pockets to fund their clubs. 

“We have to improve the standard of the game,” said Eshun. “We have to improve the marketing of the women’s game. When you compare Europe’s men and women’s leagues it’s like 70/30. Men generate more [money] than women. They [Europe] are trying to improve women’s football, they are the leaders.

“We have to improve how women’s football is run. Gradually, Africa will have competitive women’s leagues. Women have to get into decision-making [positions]. When you get more women making those decisions, they will do things towards women [football].”

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The biggest challenge for the men’s Champions League is the cost of travelling in the continent. Even teams with deep pockets have complained about it. This will be a tricky hurdle for women’s football with limited resources and many of the players having other jobs for an income. CAF’s attitude towards women’s football will also be another obstacle as they have shown time and again how little regard they have for it. 

For this tournament to succeed, these attitudes need to change and teams need to be given grants to help with their travelling.  

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