Motsepe cannot shake off Fifa influence, but he can succeed with Caf governance reform

Patrice Motsepe & Gianni InfantinoBackpagePix

Considering all the intrigue and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that preceded it, the election of Patrice Motsepe as Caf President in Morocco on Friday had a somewhat anti-climactic feel to it.

The South African mogul ascended in the most bloodless manner possible, a rubber stamp of a process so far removed from the drama of four years ago when Issa Hayatou was deposed.

There was very little decorum at that seismic result back in 2017: the Cameroonian shook his proverbial fist at the treachery of it all, and the coalition that had put forward and carried Ahmad Ahmad to victory joyed well into the small hours.

This time, the theme was all business. At least outwardly. No great dragon had been slain, and so there was no call for elaborate ceremony.

Motsepe, the first Anglophone President of Caf, duly delivered his speech, and hit all the familiar beats: the need for unity among member associations, a denouncement of 'negative' media coverage, as well as the urgency of Caf’s financial situation.

There is no denying these are important agenda points. What is as yet unclear – and this will essentially define his presidency – is how he intends to tick these items off the list. Already, there are signs he may have got off on the wrong foot.

Patrice Motsepe, February 2021Backpagepix

His plan for uniting the disparate interests within the continent’s football administration is a uniquely African one: section out more pie slices.

Caf will now have five Vice-Presidents, as opposed to the former allotment of three, a decision ratified by its Congress on Friday. It is expected this will take in the likes of Augustin Senghor and Ahmed Yahya, both of whom were prevailed upon to forsake their interest in the plum job itself.

Appeasement makes for uneasy truces, however; not being a savvy operator within the corridors of African football, Motsepe might have to learn this the hard way.

If he does manage to avoid the trip-wires, it will be because of the stern shadow of Fifa President Gianni Infantino, whose interest and influence in African football matters shows no sign of abating. Here, he was front and centre; the unseen hand pulling the strings, the power behind the throne.

As a result, right from the off, Motsepe faces questions over his legitimacy. When Infantino butted in the last time, it was seen in some quarters as a necessary evil, all in service of unseating Hayatou.

The evidence of the following four years has seen that perception sour somewhat, but having failed to heed Chaucer and deploy a long spoon when eating with a fiend, they now find they cannot shake off the meddlesome Swiss. The hooks are embedded too deeply.

Gianni Infantino and Ahmad Ahmad - Fifa and CafBackpagpix

What Infantino is expecting to get in return this time remains to be seen.

Already, based on Motsepe’s comments, it appears part of any agreement reached involves Fatma Samoura continuing her oversight role over the daily running of Caf, essentially making the body a Fifa satellite. It will also be expected that the maximum number of votes from the continent be delivered come 2023 when the next Fifa elections take place.

What more? Who knows? Indeed, it seems that when it comes to avoiding the pitfalls that his predecessor Ahmad fell into, it may already be too late for Motsepe. If he seeks to assert his – and Caf’s independence – he risks exposing himself; if he keeps the treaty as agreed, then African football may be a very unrecognizable terrain in four years.

Already, Infantino’s idea for an African Super League seems to be gaining traction once more, having been widely derided when it was first mooted back in December 2020. It remains just as unpopular, but will the Motsepe presidency have the gumption to turn back some of these unworkable ideas?

The answer to this question will have grave consequences for the continent.

If there is a vestige of hope for football stakeholders in Africa, it is that Motsepe – being a man of considerable means already – seems less likely to be caught up in the rampant corruption that came to define the Ahmad tenure. At the moment, Caf’s coffers are actually in need of a boost, and so it is expected that the South African will bring some of his private sector connections in business to bear toward getting the body back on solid footing.

The logic here is a little reductive, but even running with it some concerns remain. The sheer scale of corruption that held sway under the previous leadership would simply not have been possible with proper accountability and checks in the system. Without these, even the most upright leader is bound to lapse into the same culture of duplicity and frivolous spending.

“Do we have to cut or must we invest?” Motsepe asked. “The way to get yourself out of trouble is not necessarily cutting until you can cut no more and get to the bone.

"The recognized strategy around the world is to grow. Look at the budget we have at Caf: you can’t keep cutting and cutting.

"We will reorganize and reposition," he added. "The significant benefits take some time, they don’t happen overnight.”

As such, the priority at this moment for Motsepe should be to clean house, as it were. Key reforms in the structural governance model of Caf would do a lot more to restore confidence than a force of personality, and would be more sustainable as well.

If that is the only front on which the Mamelodi Sundowns owner succeeds, he will at least have created a greater legacy than his predecessor managed.