Is Africa’s lack of World Cup success partly a result of skewed Fifa laws?

Is Africa’s lack of World Cup success partly a result of skewed Fifa laws?

By Chris Mwabe

There is no greater sporting event in the world than the FIFA World Cup ― the golden child of the most loved game in the world. To put it into perspective, the 2015 NFL Super Bowl Final was estimated to have 114.4 million viewers in the United States and 30 million internationally. Meanwhile, the 2018 final of the World Cup drew an estimated 1 billion viewers around the world.

Forbes Magazine reported that the cost of the most expensive advertisement in the US during the final match of the 2014 World Cup, according to the Standard Media Index was $1.18 million and that between 2015 and 2018 FIFA made $1.65 billion in marketing rights revenue. The winning team of the World Cup earns $38 million, $28 million for the runners up and $24 million for third place. Each team that participates in the Group Stage gets $8 million and each team that qualifies for the World Cup gets $1.5 million for preparation.

It is important to set out the process through which a team gets to participate in the World Cup. Each confederation is awarded a number of slots based on its relative strength which is determinant on the performance of the confederation’s teams in the preceding three world cup tournaments. The confederation with the number of slots in mind then sets out a qualification system for its member associations which in some instances is determinant on world Football Rankings. After each confederation gets its world Cup representatives from the qualifiers, the teams are then put in various pots during the World Cup Final draw to determine the groups within which they will play in the tournament. The determinant factor with regard to the spots is the World Rankings. 

The governance of football in the world is organized in three tiers: the International Federation (FIFA) at the top, followed by the Continental Federations and the National Governing Bodies respectively. FIFA sets the rules and regulations which are subsequently implemented by the other two. This mode applies in the World Cup qualification system. The number of slots given to each association in the World Cup as earlier stated is based on its strength relative to other associations in the federation. For instance, the European Football Association (UEFA) – which has 55 member associations – has 13 slots in the World Cup whereas the Confederation of African Football (54 member associations) has 5 slots, while CONEMBOL, the South American equivalent (10 member associations) has 5 slots. 

This is not as a result of lack of talent from these shores; Africa has produced potentially world beating teams, but because of the mathematical formulae employed in determining the strength of the confederations and the World Football rankings, these teams have little to show for it. The strength of the federations is ironically determined based on the number of wins the representatives of a confederation in the final competitions of the last three World Cups have recorded against teams representing the other confederations. 

The World rankings are based on a formula that ensures that the African teams find it difficult to rise up the rankings or get into the latter stages of the World Cup tournament. FIFA has introduced a system of ranking individual teams called the Elo method, a formula based on four things: the points a team has already amassed; the significance of the match in question; expected result of the match ― based on the past performance of the teams, and on the actual result of the match. Thus, points are determined by the relative strength of the two opponents. 

This formula presumes that teams that are higher in the ranking should fare better against teams that are lower in the ranking. In addition, the most points are awarded to teams that have participated in the latter stages of the FIFA World Cup ― with teams garnering 60  points and above for having taken part in the quarter finals stages and beyond. There are considerably lower rewards for friendlies, which reduce the value of a team according to the Elo method.  

The reality is that most African teams are at the lowest ranking levels of football. The highest-ranking African team is Senegal at number 20. CAF has 20 teams in the top 100 teams in the world whereas UEFA has 42 while occupying 6 of the top 10 slots. Furthermore, while CONEMBOL has all 10 teams in the top 100, 4 make up the rest of the top 10. 

In a bid to get favourable ranking that could affect their World Cup qualification, teams would rather play against teams that are of a higher ranking. These teams most likely have better conditioned players, train using better facilities and are more prepared for the tournament than African teams; matches with them are likely to garner more points on the board than African countries and thus might potentially affect their qualification from their particular confederation qualifiers.

According to an article on The Set Pieces, some ingenious countries willing to investigate the ranking methods have even gone ahead to forfeit playing fixtures that would lower their rankings. An example is Wales, who went 17 months without playing a non-competitive game in 2014. So in July 2015 – with detrimental friendly ranking points avoided – Wales entered the world’s top 10 for the first time their history. Whilst the preposterous nature of the rankings was mocked again as the media covered Wales’ dramatic climb from 117th place in 2011, Chris Coleman and his backroom staff were quietly congratulating themselves on successfully manipulating their position right on cue for the imminent 2018 qualifying draw.

Even after qualifying, teams are assigned various pots during the final draw to determine the groups within which the teams will play in the tournament. The world rankings are used to allocate teams to pots in descending order, after hosts take the top seeding spot. African teams, already disadvantaged by the qualification system, mostly end up in pots 3 and 4. 

In the final draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Senegal, Egypt and Tunisia were in the third pot while Morocco and Nigeria were in the fourth. Already weak African teams therefore face the possibility of being put in groups with stronger, better prepared teams from the first and second pot.

A case in point was Tunisia being grouped with Belgium and England, with Morocco being grouped with Portugal and Spain during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, sounding the death knell for the two African teams. These limitations set barriers on the financial remuneration of African teams, further widening the gap between African countries and their global counterparts.

There is a correlation between the system as is and teams’ performance in the World Cup; directly such as the lack of opportunity for talented African players to play regularly against the  so-called ‘big boys’ of football, as well as indirectly, in regard to the financial perks and global acclaim that comes from success in the latter stages of the tournament. 

If put into good use, well-managed financial investment in the various National Federations could lead to an upturn in African football, particularly at the grassroot levels. The current system limits the chance of African teams rising to the pinnacle of world football. 

However, all hope is not lost; increasingly, courts and competition authorities have shown an interest in sports bodies right from the days of the precedent-setting decisions such as the Mecca-Medina case. Sports bodies fit the description of undertakings in a dominant position that could easily abuse their position of dominance in the market. FIFA in this scenario has the legal capacity to restrict member associations eligible to participate in premier competitions. 

In his article, “Anti-Competitive Aspects of Sports”, Stephen F. Ross states: “…many sports leagues face, at least in their domestic market, no competition from reasonable substitutes for their fans’ patronage and thus they exercise economic power over their fans.” Here, Ross describes a phenomenon all too familiar in the FIFA arena. It is match-fixing on an institutional level.

This matter is further complicated by the issue of jurisdiction as to whether the affected countries’ competition authorities have jurisdiction over FIFA. However, various jurisdictions have adopted the effects doctrine, where “a state can assert jurisdiction over conduct outside its borders when such conduct has the intended effect of causing a substantial adverse impact within the state’s territory”.

For instance, in 2017, the German National Competition Authority (Bundeskartellamt) initiated an investigation into the rules of the German Olympic Sport Federation, specifically examining the potentially anti-competitive effects of Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter. The Olympic Charter is created by the International Olympic Committee and implemented by the national Olympic committees. 

Overall, this scenario calls for deeper inquiry on the procedures by FIFA and their implications on the African teams’ performance in world football. An analysis of existing affirmative action measures and a push for a more equitable process is vital in improving Africa’s chances of winning the World Cup. (

— Writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up