Issa Hayatou Versus Ahmad Ahmad: When David Defeated Goliath

Issa Hayatou Versus Ahmad Ahmad:

When David Defeated Goliath

A combination photo made on March 14, 2017 shows Malagasy Football Federation president Ahmad Ahmad (L) in Antananarivo on February 13, 2017 and Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou in Zurich on January 11, 2016. Madagascar’s football boss Ahmad will challenge the long-serving Hayatou during the CAF presidential election on March 16, 2017 in Addis Ababa. First elected in 1988, Cameroonian Hayatou, 70, is seeking an eighth consecutive term as head of the body that governs African football.

He should have seen the handwriting on the wall. He should have known it was a matter of time before fate would catch up with him. The signs have been all around him for several years now, but the intoxicating effect of power can also cause temporary blindness to reality!

Issa Hayatou should have quit the stage of football administration when the ovation was still very loud and in his favour, but he did not, hence his fall last Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when a new chapter was opened in the story of African football administration – the giant was roundly trounced by a Lilliputian.

I am neither his friend nor his fan, but I like him. He may like me too, but only up to the point where my criticism of his longevity in office as president of the Confederation of African Football is not made public. As soon as that happens, he immediately bares his fangs and strikes with the speed and ferocity of a viper.  I tasted of his venom several years ago when I wrote an article in my weekly sports column asking him not to re-contest the CAF presidential elections after serving a fifth term in office.

Since then also he has re-contested the presidential elections two more times, won them both and probably has become the longest serving president of a football confederation in history.

That is Issa Hayatou, a man who understands power play and has deployed it effectively in the past to ‘perpetuate’ himself in office without any one brave enough to challenge him. Anyone that dared was cut off the pipeline of Hayatou’s generosity – membership of a committee or sub-committee in CAF. For decades that was Issa’s master card, an unfailing strategy that keeps loyalists in check and enemies at bay.

I admit I have been one of Issa Hayatou’s most virulent and persistent critics, so I deserved whatever I received from him as the ‘price’ to pay. I criticised him all the time, not for his failings but for continuously making African football administrators look like weaklings and fools as he keeps a stranglehold on football administration in the continent and warehouses football development at his friends’ and loyalists’ whilst he straddles the football planet with the swagger, contempt and arrogance of a dictator, whose word is law and must be obeyed, and who does not care whose ox is gored in the process.

In African football, nothing gets done or achieved without Hayatou’s buy in and approval. Every football administrator in Africa knows this, yet they allow the situation to fester, afraid of the consequences of challenging him and failing. The fear of Issa Hayatou is the beginning of wisdom.

An international media organisation that I occasionally wrote for have turned down and refused to publish several articles that I wrote considered negative about Hayatou, particularly his strangulating grip on African football and his interminable stay in office. The organisation was always afraid of his reaction.  He could actually have revoked their partnership deal with CAF, even if they thought that my views were valid.

That was my main grouse with the man – that he should step aside and allow a younger generation take his place. No one commands the sort of absolute powers he had and remains sane and humble. Otherwise, Issa has done well for African football, as well as for himself. He should have left honourably and allowed his records and posterity speak for him, after all his achievement may be hard to match in African football: longest serving president of a football confederation in the history of the game; first African interim president of FIFA; first Black man to be made FIFA First Vice President; the man in charge when the World Cup was hosted for the first time on African soil; and so on.

Above all, he has been president of CAF for an incredible 29 unbroken years! Under his watch the organisation grew, taking African football to the global stage with achievements in the various youth tournaments, the Olympics Games football event and even the World Cup proper where participating African teams now number five (from only one team up till 1982 and with the promise of even more places when new FIFA President, Infantino’s new World Cup format takes off in 2026).

That’s how the wise are often confounded by the simple and foolish things of this world. Ahmad Ahmad, the man who defeated Hayatou to the crown, was the most unlikely candidate to stand against the might of Issa Hayatou and win.  It was a mismatch on paper. It was David confronting Goliath again without divine intervention.

Issa never saw it coming until the very end. Had the challenge come from any of the giants of African football, probably he would have taken the challenge more seriously and fought a better fight. This time he was beaten by the elements that took sides with the underdog.

The recent crisis that engulfed the administration of football in FIFA made money a dangerous and unwelcome tool to deploy. In the past, money had been the WMD. The world is yet to recover from the fallouts of the still-unfolding scandals in FIFA, and Issa would not risk even a skin-deep scrutiny of his activities in African football. He knows he would never survive it given the level of corruption in the system. So the blatant buying and selling of votes were reduced to the barest minimum, and on the resultant level playing field, even an underdog can take Issa to the cleaners. That’s exactly what happened in Addis Ababa. It showed how tired of his endless reign Africans have become.

It is comforting to know that a new era has begun in African football; that a new face will now adorn our football billboards, advertising African football; that the days when CAF presidents, driven by greed and wanton corruption, sought to perpetuate themselves in office may now be over forever; that the prospects of some breath of fresh air in African football may indeed be here; that the days when suspended and even convicted administrators will be parading the corridors of African football may be over; that the days when true African football heroes will get the recognition they so richly deserve in the affairs of African football may be here; that the days when CAF will no longer reek with the stench of corruption in its fabric will be not so far away. These are truly comforting thoughts of hope!

Ahmad’s victory is a victory for a new beginning, of hope and of change, of a new era of decency, transparency and accountability.

– Segun Odegbami

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