AFCON has exposed what's wrong with African football. There is a lack of football pitches, organization and investment. Without big changes, it will be hard for Africa to send nine strong teams to the 2026 World Cup.
It's raining and the grass is green and lush. It is also very long. This is where Gabon's best club team, CFM of the capital, Libreville, train. CFM is the champion both of Gabon's 14-team league and its cup competition. In the lead-up to the Africa Cup of Nations, CFM even beat Gabon's national team in a friendly. Now they are training on this bumpy grass pitch, which is a 45-minute drive from Libreville.
These are far from ideal training conditions, and not just due to the state of the pitch. Players on many other teams have gone on strike because their salaries haven't been paid. So far, the CFM players are still getting paid, even if they don't know for how long this will continue. Gabon's economy is driven by oil, and when the price of oil is low, as it is now, the government runs into major financial problems - and that also becomes a problem for the players.
Lack of professionalism
Sassou Chico stands in the center circle of the pitch, while the rest of the players train hard all over the field. The coach has singled him out to explain what is wrong with African football.
African youngsters love to play football (here on the beach in Libreville), but they are not exposed to proper coaching
"Here in Gabon, football is organized by the state," he says. "And when the state has problems, as a player, you get less money. And some club presidents put the money they get from the state into their own pockets."
This is how things work in Gabon and in Africa as a whole. For the most part, football is not run in a professional manners, and even now, there is a lack of good pitches in every country on this continent. Well-organized training or youth academies are just as rare as tactical training, or football at schools.
"The clubs here in Africa need to become more professional, and this needs to begin at the youth level. That would help us to further develop African football," Borussia Dortmund star and Gabon captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameng told German public broadcaster ARD.
Finke: 'Lack of progress'
This year's Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has served as a reflection of these problems. The level of play has been poor, and no team has demonstrated a positive long-term development. The tournament favorites, Ivory Coast and Algeria were eliminated in the first round. Alongside underdogs Burkina Faso, in Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana, three of the heavyweights of African football did make it to the semifinals, but rarely produced convincing performances as they did so.
Volker Finke, the long-time coach of Bundesliga club Freiburg, who later coached Cameroon's national team, knows all about the problems that hamper African football. Sitting on a tree trunk that lies on a beach in Libreville, he too laments the fact that African football is failing to progress.
"I know of no flourishing local league. At some point they call themselves professionals, but the pitches that they play on are catastrophic," Finke says. "As I found out in Cameroon, in the so-called "professional game," average attendances are between 300 and 600 spectators. Of the 12 monthly salaries that the players are entitled to, they only actually receive between three and four."
A tidy sum for Messi
Starting in 2026, Africa will have more places at the World Cup than the five that they have had up until now. Although FIFA has not yet decided how many more Africa or any of the other continents will receive, there has been much speculation that Africa will get four additional spots. If things don't improve - and fast - it will be difficult for Africa to send nine strong teams to the World Cup. And a lack of funds often isn't the problem. However, as Finke confirmed, this often wanders into the pockets of football functionaries or is spent for more high-profile things.
The president of Gabon, Alin Bongo Ondimba had Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi flown in for the foundation stone ceremony for one of the new stadiums that was built for the Africa Cup of Nations. Messi is reported to have been paid more than three million euros ($3.24 million) for his presence, however, the government has denied this.