ZURICH (Reuters) - When Cameroon beat Argentina at the opening match of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and went on to reach the quarter-finals, it seemed that African football had finally made the breakthrough on the world stage.
It was only a matter of time, observers said, before an African team won tournament.
Since then, six World Cups have been played and no African team has even reached the semi-finals. Although African players have shone individually in European club football, it has not been to the same extent that South Americans have.
Chaotic administration is often blamed for African football’s perceived lack of progress, with players and directors involved in last-minute squabbling over bonus payments, along with political meddling.
Former Mali and Sevilla forward Frederic Kanoute sees another reason holding back African football; a lack of competitive, domestic football on the continent.
Kanoute told Reuters in an interview that if African countries could develop their own professional leagues, it would help showcase their own talent and give players an alternative to pursuing a career in Europe.
The 40-year-old, who also had spells at West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, said that when European agents come to Africa to buy players the system is a “lottery” because it is difficult to see the player perform in a genuinely competitive environment.
“Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t work and when it doesn’t, this is dramatic because the kid has nothing and he has to go back home,” said Kanoute on the sidelines of a FIFA conference on equality and inclusion.
“It puts the European clubs in a position of power because they can propose whatever transfer fee they want... They can say they don’t want to pay one or two million euros for a player they have never really seen in action.”
Kanoute contrasted this with the case of Vinicius, a Brazilian player who will join Real Madrid from Flamengo when he reaches the age of 18 later this year in a deal worth a reported 45 million euros ($55.7 million).
“Imagine the difference between 45 million euros and 50,000 euros... and you’re not going to tell me he (Vinicius) is 100 times better than some African talent,” said Kanoute.
“But he has a league to play in and he is playing for Flamengo, one of the best clubs in Brazil. He has the experience of playing under pressure, of media exposure, and of playing in front of big crowd.”
Kanoute, who runs a Dubai-based consultancy and is involved in charity projects in Mali, said he also wanted African players to have the chance of playing professional football without moving to Europe.
“We have to make sure these kids have the opportunity to play football in their own country as well,” he said. “For those who don’t make the grade in Europe, that would not be a problem... they could still earn a small salary at home.”
Although African countries already have their own leagues, most are rudimentary. Kanoute said that, in the case of Mali, “football is still not recognised as professional and most of the players can’t live from football.”
Kanoute, who was born in France and scored 23 goals in 38 Mali appearances, conceded that investing in such a league was not easy, but suggested the both local companies and global soccer body FIFA could be involved.
But it was vital that the championship was televised, he said.
“You need to invest in the stadiums, make it entertaining, decrease tickets prices to fill the stadium. That will bring more awareness and sponsors will want to be there,” he said.
At the moment, he said, many Africans preferred to watch European football on television rather than go to matches in their own countries.
“We don’t appreciate our own football enough, that’s what needs to change.”
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Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge