FIFA boss visit to Southern Africa – The battleground for CAF leadership war?
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – Southern Africa is providing the unlikely stage for a bruising high-stakes battle for the Confederation of African Football (CAF) leadership with the region set to shape the future of the game on the continent after years of being sidelined in the shadows of the game’s politics.
Last weekend, CAF president Issa Hayatou, who faces the biggest challenge to his lengthy 29-year reign as the continent’s football leader at landmark elections in Ethiopia next month, took his entourage to South Africa where the forthcoming poll loomed large and appeared to overshadow the CAF Super Cup.
The Cameroonian strongman, who has been in charge of CAF since 1988 and wants to extend his hold on the game by another term, will face outsider Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar in polls whose dynamics changed when the Council of Southern African Football members openly declared they will vote en-bloc for Ahmad.
That declaration shook Hayatou’s camp and while the Cameroonian was in South Africa specifically for the CAF Super Cup, which was won by Mamelodi Sundowns who beat Congolese giants TP Mazembe 1-0 in Pretoria on Saturday night. He also took the opportunity to try and fight for his survival as the head of CAF.
Hayatou met South Africa President Jacob Zuma and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula and the Cameroonian’s camp immediately tried to use that meeting to boost his credentials and suggest that COSAFA, despite their public announcement that they will back Ahmad, would be divided on poll day with the South African Football Association voting for the incumbent CAF president.
“On the morning of Saturday, 18 February 2017, President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, received the president of the Confederation of African Football Issa Hayatou at his residence in Pretoria,” CAF said in a statement posted on their website under the headline, ‘CAF president receives support from Jacob Zuma.’
“During the audience, the CAF President, on his own behalf and on behalf of the organization, expressed gratitude to the South African authorities for the decisive support given to the development of African football over the past 20 years, notably the willingness and availability to host CAF competitions and consenting to the enormous sacrifices that comes with hosting such event.
“President Zuma welcomed the tangible progress made in football on the continent, adding that he particularly follows the improvement in the quality of the teams and the level of play. To this effect, he remarked that he hopes to see at least one African team in the semi-finals of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018.
“He also took the opportunity to reiterate the commitment of his government and his personal commitment to the continued objective of his ‘brother’ Issa Hayatou, in his mission of developing football in Africa. He thus assured his host of South Africa’s flawless support for his candidacy for a new term at the helm of the CAF.
“South African, Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula, South African Football Association president, Danny Jordaan, and Mamelodi Sundowns president, Patrice Motsepe, were all present at the meeting, which took place few hours to the kickoff of the Total CAF Super Cup 2016 between South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns, winners of the CAF Champions League last year, and TP Mazembe of DR Congo, winners of the CAF Confederation Cup 2016.”
But moments after that statement was published on the CAF website, and various international media sites, the South African government was forced to reject those claims in an embarrassing rebuke of Hayatou and his team.
Mbalula said Zuma didn’t endorse Hayatou’s candidature.
“President Zuma expressed his gratitude for the visit and reiterated his support for the development of African football,” Mblaula said in a statement.
“Abiding by the principle of non-interference in the affairs of football democracy, President Jacob Zuma did not pledge his personal support or that of the South African government behind the name of Mr. Hayatou.”
The media suggested the CAF president was running scared with the Zimbabwean tabloid, H-Metro, leading with an editorial that said “Hayatou has no shame,” as it savaged the Cameroonian strongman’s questionable integrity which now included lying about receiving a Presidential endorsement that never was.
“What a shame. Hayatou’s voter manipulation armoury is clearly empty and he has become a joke,” the mass-circulating tabloid said.
Clearly, if Hayatou was hoping to make the most of his visit to South Africa last weekend, in terms of advancing his political agenda for another fourth term as CAF president, then the Cameroonian strongman and his team’s tactics appear to be backfiring horribly.
And, to add insult to their wounds, FIFA president Gianni Infantino is in Southern Africa this week where the Swiss lawyer – who is accused by Hayatou supporters of belonging to the camp that is fighting to unseat the Cameroonian – is set to meet all the continent’s football leaders who will vote in the elections in Ethiopia on March 16.
Hayatou’s camp fear Infantino could use his visit, and influence, to boost the campaign of Ahmad.
The FIFA boss’ visit to Zimbabwe, in particular, hasn’t gone well with the CAF leadership given that Zimbabwe Football Association president Philip Chiyangwa is leading the campaign to topple Hayatou and will host scores of African leaders in Harare to celebrate his birthday and also his rise to become COSAFA leader.
Last week, Hayatou threatened Chiyangwa with unspecified sanctions should he go ahead with his glitzy Harare bash, which the CAF president says is part of the machinery to tilt the voting pattern against his candidature, but the Harare tycoon refused to be bullied and, instead, demanded an apology from the Cameroonian.
Chiyangwa is Ahmad’s election agent.
“Let’s face it, I’m fighting in the other camp and this is a movement and it’s like nothing that Hayatou has seen before and I can tell you that it’s unstoppable,” Chiyangwa told The Southern Times.
“When the time for changes comes, it’s impossible to stop it and Hayatou has had his time at the top and the time has come for someone else to take over as the CAF president.
“FIFA have a new leadership and it was elected democratically and why are CAF so resistant to having the power of democracy rule so that the winner shakes the loser and football, at the end of it all, is the winner?”
That Infantino has decided to visit Harare, at a time when the Hayatou camp is against attendance to that bash, has given wings to those who are opposing the CAF president.