The Confederation of Africa football (Caf) must have a rethink on the modalities of the Africa footballer of the year accolade because the continent deserves better
Until it does, however, these lists would mean very little to many fans of African football. In fact, the only reason why most of us would pay any attention at all to the news of the release of these lists is that it is football-related; otherwise it only remains trivia better reserved for those interested in stats.
The African Footballer of the Year award was full of credibility in the past, for most of the 25 years when it was conducted under the auspices of the prestigious France Football magazine (also the innovators of the Ballon D'or concept, now adopted by FIFA).
Particularly since the 2000’s, Caf's list of nominees have often prompted serious debates over the exact criteria guiding the selection process and the decisions they have often led to. While we can hardly object to Caf not playing according to our individual predictions each year, there would be little reason to complain if Caf were merely surprising us once in a while; instead, we have to contend with the fact that Issa Hayatou and his people have made an unpleasant habit of playing tricks with the annual rite, tricks which some of us are finding very funny.
There are two major things I along with several other African football enthusiasts- find unnervingly curious and wrong about the Caf African footballer of the year award, and the inconsistency of it all is especially revealed in the light of the one recognized parallel to the Caf award, the version organized by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The first -and perhaps the most obvious- flaw is the perceived bias of the award toward players from Francophone countries.
Often when this issue is raised, apologists for the Cairo-based body attempt to dismiss it as wild talk that has little backing in real evidence. On the contrary, though, there exists much in the form of actual facts and figures to support these claims, if one is thorough enough to scratch a little beneath the superficial. Since the turn of the millennium, the awards have been organized 12 times (minus the current edition which is yet unfinished) and, rather strangely, all of these awards have been won by French-speaking players
And that incredible pattern is certain to continue this year, too, as three purely francophone players -Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure from the Ivory Coast, along with Alex Song from Cameroun- have been shortlisted for the award.
It is not as if there has been a dire dearth of good candidates from elsewhere over the years. In fact, in certain years, the best candidates have been either English- or, in a few cases, Arab-speaking: Ghana's Sammy Kuffuor in 2001; Nigeria's Austin Okocha in 2003/2004; Egypt's Mohammed Abouterika in 2008. Then there is Ghana and Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien whose performances merited at least one award between 2005 and 2009, yet whom somehow managed to consistently remain a runner-up throughout those years.
Now, let's see how that compares to the 'superior' standards set by the BBC. In those 12 years under review, there have been as many winners who speak French as those who do not -with the latter category actually shading the ratio 8:4- and although the balance clearly weighs more to one side, the BBC has managed to keep things more even than Caf has.
In most of the occasions that the winners of the two awards have differed; the choice of the BBC has been more reflective of popular opinion.
So then, what has accounted for the difference? Well, put simply, it has been the varying degrees of neutrality of the respective organizers. You see, the BBC, although being largely an English institution, has little reason to incline itself more towards players of a particular linguistic origin. To a large extent, it is an independent judge which, in any case, leaves much of the decision-making to its audience who are allowed to vote for their personal favourites. Hardly will the same be said of Caf. The highly influential executive committee of Caf, which is entrusted with quasi-autocratic powers, has up to eleven of its seventeen members speaking French as either a first or second language, from Cameroonian President Hayatou to Moroccan General Secretary Hicham el Amrani, a fact that could somewhat justifiably be waved in their faces by conspiracy theorists. That supposed Francophone 'cabal', whether or not some would be willing to admit, could be quite decisive in the eventual outcome of these awards.
Granted, Caf claims the voting is actually done by the national team captains and coaches of the continent's 53 associations, yet there is little means of wholly verifying that claim, for unlike the system employed elsewhere (by Uefa and Fifa, for instance), Caf suspiciously refuses to reveal the exact details of the votes cast to ascertain who voted for who in the aftermath of the process. Then again, one wonders if things would not have been much better and transparent had Caf's media and technical committees been involved more in the electoral affair. That, at least, would make things somewhat more credible because, for one, journalists have always proved themselves among the more expert judges anywhere in the world where such awards have been held.
It has also been pointed out with some veracity that Caf's choices over the years tend to display utter disregard for the continental club and international competitions organized by the confederation itself.
In fact, on only one occasion since Caf took over the awards has a player featuring on the continent made it into the top three, i.e., Mohammed Abouterika, 2nd, in 2008. Some argue that football has developed since the days when Sunday Ibrahim and Karim Abdul Razak won the awards with Asante Kotoko (in 1971 and 1978 respectively) to the extent that most of Africa's best players are strutting their stuff and putting in their most consistent and significant performances abroad, but even that piece of reasonable logic could be countered by the equally sound claim that standards in Africa's major competitions could not have dipped so much that there remains no quality player-of -the-year material therein as Caf would have us believe.
Abouterika, already mentioned, was the undoubted star of 2008, guiding Egyptian giants Al Ahly to continental glory in the Caf Champions League and the Egypt national side to the Africa cup of Nations that year, yet was surprisingly overlooked for the award, eventually losing out to Togo and Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor who had not even been half as impressive with either side he represented that year.
Three years before, his compatriot Mohammed Barakat had suffered a similar fate. Incidentally, though, on both occasions, the said players received the recognition due them from the BBC, making it quite obvious which institution cast its net wider, and also partly explains why the Caf gong has had multiple winners three times since 2000 (with Samuel Eto'o doing so up to four times), while only one player, Okocha, has managed that feat with the BBC version. In this regard, this writer strongly suggests that the Africa Inter-Club player of the year award -presented to the player deemed to have excelled most in the various African club competitions- be scrapped so as to force Caf's hand in giving greater recognition to such players.
When Christopher Katongo -the inspirational skipper who fired Zambia's unlikely Afcon-winning achievement earlier this year- who has been inexplicably yet somewhat unsurprisingly excluded from consideration for the Caf award (and the place ‘rightfully’ given to Alex Song, a player who won zilch with English side Arsenal last term, did not even play at the Afcon, and whose only significant 'achievement' in the year was earning a move to FC Barcelona in Spain where he struggles for game-time) got crowned earlier this week with the BBC's, it represented one more feather in the latter's cap and one less in the former's.
And thus, while the annual Caf award is given out amid fanfare in the glare of blinding lights and in the presence of VIPs, it never would carry as much worth as the one the BBC presents albeit under less heralded and lavish ceremonies, (sometimes at the doorstep of the winners' homes); not until such serious concerns are addressed to general satisfaction, anyway. Clearly, then, Caf must sit up. Maybe Mr. Hayatou ought to give this piece a read by the time tonight's event is over.