/ 4 June 2019

African football’s ‘new dawn’ turns to dusk in Ahmad’s hands

CAF President Ahmad Ahmad
CAF President Ahmad Ahmad (centre) with Cosafa President Phillip Chiyangwa. (Darren Stewart/Gallo)

There has always been a theatrical air to Confederation of African Football (CAF) elections, even in the days when strongman Issa Hayatou battered opponents into docile submission and swept to convincing victories in the presidential polls.

Those theatrics went up another level in Addis Ababa two years ago, when Hayatou was swept from power in a plebiscite he was absolutely convinced he would win — he didn’t even bother addressing the voters just minutes before they cast their ballots.

His opponent was Ahmad Ahmad, the junior executive committee member from Madagascar whose only distinction was the fact that he had been outed as one of the many football officials who received money from Qatar during the 2022 Fifa World Cup bidding process.

Some had already been banned for asking Mohamed Bin Hammam for personal loans or expense payments — such as Ahmad’s fellow executive committee member, Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia — and it seemed just a matter of time before Ahmad would feel the heat of Fifa’s ethics investigators.

In the 2017 elections, Ahmad was seen as no more than a patsy, a barometer of how strong Hayatou’s iron grip remained over African football or whether, as he looked tired and increasingly frail having just turned 70, his absolute authority was beginning to wane.

The Malagasy was the only one willing to put his head above the trenches and take on Hayatou, cajoled by more charismatic and seemingly able candidates who wanted change but were too scared to go head-to-head with the Cameroonian.

Dead man walking

Two months before the election, Ahmad cut a forlorn figure in the official hotel in Libreville during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in Gabon. Often he sat alone in the corner of the bar, few people wanting to be associated with him as he looked to be a “dead man walking”.

Little did he know, nor indeed did the incumbent, of the swelling tide of resentment against Hayatou’s 29-year reign over the administrative and controlling body for African association football. Hayatou was seeking an eighth term at the time to take his leadership into a fourth decade.

But many of the electorate were relatively new to their posts as football association presidents and wanting change. Reverence to the “chief” was fast evaporating and no longer a factor.

When it came time to vote, the two candidates were asked to leave the room, the hall where the African Union conducts its business. Hayatou and his attachés moved into an anteroom alongside the stage, while Ahmad crept out the back of the hall like a man looking to avoid the gallows.

The vote was a lengthy process as each country sent a representative up to the ballot box in alphabetical order. Then the clear plastic container was turned upside down, the ballot papers spilled on to a table in front of the assembled hall. The counting began.

Once the votes had been tallied, a small piece of paper with the result written on it was handed to CAF senior vice-president Suketu Patel, who betrayed no emotion, and the two protagonists were called back into the room.

A shell-shocked Hayatou

As the two candidates returned, a CAF staff member inadvertently switched on the giant screen above the podium to reveal the result from his computer. Ahmad had won. Hayatou, still making his way back to his chair, looked shell-shocked for a second and then his face thundered with anger.

Ahmad was somewhere at the back. A few seconds elapsed as the audience took in the enormity of it all, before shrieks of triumph and anguish rent the air. It was against this backdrop that the then 57-year-old former Malagasy minister of fisheries began his tenure.

The vote dislodged decades of stilted growth in Africa’s favourite pastime and with a new broom, the stale dust of the past could be swept away.

It all started positively, with Ahmad admitting he did not have the answers and quickly setting up a think-tank that did have the answers. Within months of becoming CAF president, he oversaw significant changes, notably the thorny issue of the timing of Afcon, which was slap-bang in the middle of the European club season.

Positive start to Ahmad’s era

This had always been a sticking point for Hayatou, who refused to be seen to be kowtowing to the Europeans. The more they moaned about losing their players to national team duty in mid-season, the more he dug in his heels.

But with about 19 players opting out of the most recent Nations Cup finals in Gabon for fear of jeopardising their future club contracts, it was obvious something had to be done. Maintaining the status quo would likely increase this number dramatically amid the strain of club versus country, thereby threatening the integrity of Afcon.

Players might have copped flack for a perceived lack of patriotism, but more important to them is earning money and it is the clubs that provide this bread and butter. Ahmad did not flinch in making a prudent move, seeing the practical reality. The decision came quickly, too.

He changed the club competitions calendar as well, to the benefit of the majority of the major football-playing nations on the continent — South Africa included — and promised changes across the board in areas such as administration, refereeing and youth competition.

He brought in former footballers to tap into their experience and allowed all takers a chance to make suggestions for the betterment of the African game. They were heady days indeed, as if African football had a fresh, lemon-scented wind blowing gently across her craggy face.

Hayatou had been forgotten in the blink of an eye, his three decades as boss of the African game seeming byzantine. Ahmad spent much of his first year in charge criss-crossing the continent, meeting heads of state in the cause of the game, hardly stopping for breath and barely making it home to Madagascar.

A bachelor, he lived out of a suitcase and CAF’s grace-and-favour apartment in Cairo, but was also in Morocco for much of his time, including during a reported heart scare that had him hospitalised for a short time.

The rot sets in

It was at one of the Moroccan-sponsored CAF functions that Ahmad named Fouzi Lekjaa, president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, and appointed him — a newly elected member of the CAF executive committee — as the organisation’s third vice-president, a role for which there is no provision in the statutes.

Neither that legal technicality nor the fact that Lekjaa is a junior in comparison with the majority of his colleagues on the 21-man committee seemed to make a difference. In hindsight, it was an early indication of the new CAF president’s disregard for confederation rules.

Since that appointment, he has been accused of corruption, sexual harassment, nepotism and flagrant disregard of the statutes in an appalling change of tide in past months. At last year’s Fifa World Cup in Russia, his fresh-faced general secretary, Amr Fahmy, was overzealously complimentary about his new boss, plus all the new colleagues that Ahmad had brought into senior positions at CAF, as well as the direction in which the African game was heading.

But that Moscow conversation hid the fact that Fahmy had already begun to keep a dossier of Ahmad’s descent into the murky world of corruption. Fahmy was jolted into action by an innocuous contract over refereeing equipment for the 2018 African Championship of Nations (Chan) in Morocco, in which the CAF president cancelled a routine order of kit from Puma and instructed a bemused CAF secretariat to buy the equipment instead from Adidas, but through a friend of his in France.

Usually, CAF would receive equipment at cost price from Adidas, with whom it has a long-standing relationship. But now it paid over the odds. The conclusion drawn was that Ahmad was helping his friend to get a dodgy buck or, even worse, getting some sort of kickback himself.

Fahmy pays the ultimate price

The dossier soon swelled. Ahmad stands accused of ordering that a portion of the payments to individual football associations be paid into the private accounts of the organisation’s presidents, to “cover their expenses”. He also allegedly authorised CAF to foot the bill for a private junket to Mecca for Muslim association presidents.

Fahmy reported Ahmad for overspending on new cars for use at the confederation’s Cairo headquarters and at a satellite office in Madagascar. That was all in a document that Fahmy sent to Fifa’s independent Ethics Committee in a whistle-blowing exercise that cost him his job.

Since then, there have been more allegations. Complaints of sexual harassment and charges have been laid against him in Morocco and London. Ahmad has also been accused of claiming almost $18 000 (just over R260 000) in expenses from CAF for air travel and per diem daily expense costs for last year’s World Cup, despite it being a Fifa tournament and having nothing to do with CAF. Fifa would have paid for Ahmad’s travel and given him a generous daily allowance, but he is alleged to have double claimed, from both football bodies.

By virtue of being CAF president, Ahmad is automatically a Fifa vice-president and the allegations represent a serious dilemma for the world governing body boss, Gianni Infantino.

Will Fifa act?

He is not expected to act before the Fifa Congress that starts in Paris, France, on 5 June. But all eyes will be on him afterwards to see if he stands by his claim of wanting to clean up the game and is prepared to risk any potential backlash from Africa, where Ahmad’s indulgence of football association bosses has ensured a decent base of popularity.

Significantly, Infantino cancelled his participation in the Cup of Nations draw in Cairo in April after Fahmy was sacked, in a sign that Ahmad’s actions did not go down well at Fifa headquarters in Zurich. But he will also tread cautiously to avoid a major scandal, which Fifa can ill afford after years of bad press, particularly as the sponsor pie begins to get smaller and the economic boom of the 1980s is a distant memory.

Ahmad has denied all allegations but hasn’t, in several recent interviews, explained his actions clearly.

He seems rattled and must know that there is the danger Fifa could summarily ban him, effectively ending his career.

African football hopes a successful Nations Cup tournament will provide a strong distraction, as well as an affirmation of the continent’s potential. But the nagging feeling remains that the expectation of just two years ago has evaporated quicker than you can shout “offside”, and Ahmad might have dropped the ball not long after picking it up.

This article was first published by New Frame