Owen Evans spoke to Hicham El-Amrani, general secretary of the Confederation of African Football about building bridges with his home country and his billion dollar vision for African football.
Just as he was about to be celebrated on stage for maturity beyond his years, Hicham El-Amrani was busy trying to work out how to get a selfie with his favourite footballer.
In London’s Natural History Museum in October, the Moroccan was sat just in front of Xavi and Gaizka Mendieta, and just behind Dippy, the Diplodocus skeleton that takes pride of place in the museum’s main hall, for the Leaders Under40 Awards.
However, despite the distractions, all of his attention was on building up the courage to ask Clarence Seedorf, sitting opposite him, for a photo.
“That was actually more exciting than getting the award as I am a massive fan of AC Milan (Seedorf’s former club),” El-Amrani told SportBusiness International. “Moments like that remind me why I fell in love with the game in the first place.”
He spent time watching Seedorf play Milan’s San Siro stadium while studying the SDA Bocconi school as part of his Fifa Master qualification, before he moved into a marketing role with the AFC (Asian Football Confederation). However it was only after being named general secretary of CAF that he has started to get noticed by the industry on a global scale.
Having begun in the position in the same year the World Cup arrived to the continent, El-Amrani has since helped to transform African football from grassroots chaos into a billion dollar export.
That status was secured earlier this year when Lagardère Sports and Entertainment paid a $1bn renewal premium for the media and marketing rights to six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in 2017, 2019, 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.
Despite it being described as a ‘colossal risk’ by industry insiders, and TV Sports Markets reported that Lagardère is expected to lose money on the new contract, but El-Amrani believes it is only the tip of the iceberg.
“First of all, we are obviously not going to get a billion dollars in one lump sum payment, that figure is just the guaranteed amount,” he told SportBusiness International. “We expect the final figure [over the 12-year-deal] to be worth far more than one billion dollars. It secures our financial independence and now we can really plan the future of African football.
“I do not think it is a big risk for Lagardère, as the quality of the viewership of our football has also increased all around the world, so we need to invest in keeping our standards up to reflect the demand for African football in places like Australia, United States and Europe.
“Together with the fact that the large majority of African players are starring with clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues, it gives a massive sense of confidence to both us and Lagardère that will earn far more than the original fee out of this deal.”
Playing the Competition
All of which means El-Amrani can put on his CV that he pulled the strings behind the most expensive rights deal ever struck in Africa, representing a 343-per-cent increase on the current deal.
Rumours circulated at the time that the threat posed by Infront Sports & Media agency, owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, and their aggressive attempts to prise the rights from Lagardèere played a major role in the dramatic increase.
“I guess that helped,” he said. “When you have competitors it always helps, but let’s be clear about a couple of things as football bodies can get criticised for not being transparent. We fully respected our contractual stipulations with Lagardère, where they had first and refusal on the deal.
“If we did not have any deal by December this year, we would have gone out to tender in the open market. That is the reality of the original contract we signed and I am very well-placed to know this. With the deal signed, we had absolutely no obligation to open the gate to others.”
With the cash in the bank, the responsibility on El-Amrani’s shoulders now is to spend it on growing African football’s profile abroad, and he is sure of the best way of doing that: competitive balance. On the day of our interview Sao Tome and Principe, 193 in Fifa’s rankings, beat Ethiopia 1-0 in a shock qualifier result.
“We have 16 national teams in African Cup of Nations, and up to twelve of those could win it, honestly,” he said. “We are reducing the gap between the nations all the time, and as well as the money going into improving club licensing across African football, this is our most important task with the money we have.”
The recent success has come at a personal cost for El-Amrani. Born in Casablanca, he created a rift between himself and his home country following the saga surrounding Morocco’s botched hosting of the 2015 African Cup if Nations.
With little under two months’ notice, Morocco asked to postpone hosting the tournament due to fears that it would lead to the Ebola virus spreading to the country. The CAF could not postpone it due to clashes with the international football calendar so they removed Morocco as hosts and expelled them from the 2015 tournament, and they were subsequently replaced as hosts by Equatorial Guinea.
“Equatorial Guinea was plan A, plan B and plan C,” he said. “We had no other choice at the time so we had to make it work.”
“We knew about Morocco’s intention at the What the Moroccan federation failed to understand is that I could not mix my head and my heart beginning of October (2014), but we only flew out to have our first mission in Equatorial Guinea on November 20, and the tournament started on January 17 (2015), so when you take out Christmas and the new year holiday, there was practically no time to do it.”
Despite the success in the short-term, the acrimony between CAF and Morocco still exists, and El-Amrani does not find it easy to go back home. In April, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld “in large part” an appeal against CAF sanctions, meaning Morocco’s punishment was severely reduced.
“It is part of the package of being in a position of responsibility,” he said. “As I have said to the Moroccans, there are two sides here – there is the Moroccan that I am with my heart and soul, and then there is the professional for CAF who has an African passport, and has to think about the best interests of the whole continent.
“My role was not to side with anyone. Whether it was Morocco or Mali, I had to be equal in my dealings with them.
“What Moroccan federations failed to understand is that I could not mix my head and my heart when it comes to a situation like this. It was a really difficult situation as sometimes I was taking from both sides.
“When I was doing my job as CAF secretary general I was being told I was not being patriotic enough, and then the others were saying I was working secretly on Morocco’s side, so it was a lose-lose situation for me. The most important thing for me was to keep my head.”
Would he be free to walk the streets of his home city of Casablanca now?
“It really depends on who I met. Some people are going to be looking at certain things that appear in the sensationalist press, and some people do not have always look for all the information to make an informed call on.
“Responsible people from home understand that it was far better for CAF to have a Moroccan working for them on the inside of the federation, and it was actually an asset rather than an issue or an obstacle.
“Public opinion can fl y away just like the wind, it is not something to get too preoccupied about, as the people that really understand know the difficult situation I was in.”
Keeping the Peace
All of which gives some insight into El-Amrani’s chief job as the operational man of African football.
As CAF’s diplomat-in-chief, he is aware that he cannot keep all of the confederation’s members happy at once. Just as one disaster was averted earlier this year, another popped up from within the football family.
In May, Algeria’s Sports Minister, Mohamed Tahmi, said he will review his country’s relationship with CAF after it missed out with its bid to stage the 2017 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations national team tournament, which went to Gabon.
“Algeria has treated CAF with all respect in the past years but now I think we will change that. They will see a new face,” he said at the time. Gabon co-hosted the 2012 tournament alongside Equatorial Guinea, but Tahmi slammed CAF’s decision as being “il-logical”.
Algerian Football Federation vice-president Mohamed Meshrani appeared to question the legitimacy of the voting process that awarded the Cup of Nations to Gabon.
“I dare if anyone can tell us about the number of votes that Gabon had,” Meshrani told SuperSport.tv. “I have the answer; no one knows that. We will not stop here. We will ask CAF how they ignored our offer, until now I can’t believe.”
“In this kind of position, it’s feels like we are very similar to the UN,” said El-Amrani. “You will always have unhappy people when you consider the diversity, but this is the beauty of our job.
“We always have to have a certain type of flexibility but as soon as a member crosses the red line, we need to be strict.”
— CAF (@CAF_Online) April 8, 2015
Shortly after he received his award in London, El-Amrani’s own leader, Issa Hayatou, was made the interim president of Fifa following a wave of suspensions issued by the body’s Ethics Committee in October, which saw provisional 90- day suspensions to Fifa president Sepp Blatter, Uefa president and Fifa vice-president Michel Platini and Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke.
Blatter’s 17-year reign was under threat after Fifa’s Ethics Committee suspended him pending a criminal investigation into allegations made a “disloyal payment” of £1.3m to Michel Platini in 2011. Blatter and Platini deny any wrongdoing.
Four years ago, Hayatou, CAF president since 1998, was disciplined by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over his role in an alleged bribery scandal at Fifa. He was issued with a reprimand after the BBC’s Panorama claimed he received about $20,000 from the now a sports marketing company in 1995. Hayatou, an IOC member, denied any corruption and said the money was a gift for his confederation.
It was also Hayatou, 69, who ran against Blatter for the Fifa presidency in 2002. Knowing the media would put two and two together and make a potential presidential push, he released the following statement after taking the temporary post: “I will serve only on an interim basis.
A new president will be chosen by the extraordinary congress on 26 February 2016. I myself will not be a candidate for that position.”
So for the time being at least, the president of African football is also the leader of global football. Now El-Amrani has the ear of the most powerful man in the sport, has it changed the day-to-day running of CAF?
“It is business as usual for me at the moment, nothing has changed,” El-Amrani said. “For us we are focused on delivering on our meetings and commitments, and if President Hayatou decides that he needs to delegate more responsibility due to his new role, we will adjust to that.
“He has said that he does not want the job full time when the elections happen in February. That is the statement he has given when the media asked him.” You will always have unhappy people when you consider the diversity in Africa
Given the fact that El-Amrani has been recognised for his leadership skills so early on in his career, and Fifa’s need to show that it is not always going to be a European body with a global agenda, it would not be surprising if it is El-Amrani, not his president, who will be asked about the job in the future.