More than 30 stadia in Africa are currently deemed unfit by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and many countries are forced to play national matches abroad.
Attempts by football’s governing bodies to improve stadia security has left dozens of countries around the world unable to play senior national and club games at home. The clampdown is forcing countries to relocate, depriving local fans of watching their national stars in person and incurring extra costs for associations and often the governments that must pay to upgrade stadia.
The problem is the most acute in Africa, where the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has cracked down hard on a long-running battle to establish minimum standards at the continent’s stadia.
In 2019, CAF ordered members to improve stadia and subsequently began working with Interpol on safety and security standards. After the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, CAF again urged its members to use the lack of fans created by lockdowns as an opportunity to upgrade facilities.
In a July 2020 note termed as a final reminder, CAF said: “When a stadium in one country does not meet the requirements, its national team and/or clubs may be required to play their matches in the approved stadium in another country.”
In March 2021, South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe – an ally of FIFA president Gianni Infantino – was elected unopposed as CAF president on a mandate that included a pledge to improve the country’s football infrastructure. Two months later, Motsepe, who owns South African club Mamelodi Sundowns, shocked African football by issuing stadia bans that left 20 of CAF’s 54 members unable to stage senior internationals or club games in the African Champions League and Confederations Cup.
The reasons for the bans range from substandard playing surfaces, dugout areas for team officials described as ‘poor and inadequate’, lack of fixed seating for fans, and VIP areas, media centres, training facilities and medical rooms rated as below standard.
The list of banned African stadiums continues to grow
A total of 23 stadia in 20 African countries were initially banned, but the subsequent start of qualifying for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in March suggests that more than 30 African stadia now appear to have been deemed unfit by CAF inspectors.
In the preliminary round of the 2023 Afcon qualifiers, only one of the 10 teams playing was able to host a game at home.
Mauritius staged both legs of its qualifier with Sao Tome et Principe, as the former Portuguese colony was unable to stage matches. The Seychelles also played the ‘home’ leg of their qualifier with Lesotho in Mauritius before travelling to Soweto in South Africa for the return.
Lesotho’s Setsoto Stadium and Eswatini’s Mavuso Sports Center had been deemed unfit in CAF’s original ban and both countries staged games in neighbouring South Africa.
Djibouti, South Sudan and Somalia were not on the original list of banned stadia but had to play their home Afcon preliminary games in Eqypt, Uganda and Tanzania respectively.
Chad was also not on the initial list but had to host Gambia in Cameroon. Gambia’s Banjul Independence Stadium was deemed unfit in February and their ‘home’ qualifier was staged in the Moroccan city of Agadir.
Further bans have followed. In April, the Ghana Football Association confirmed that the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi could also no longer host international football matches. CAF’s inspectors had issued a list of areas that needed addressing, including the ‘quality of the equipment’s and materials used in the different functional areas in the stadium’. When a subsequent visit found that these concerns had not been addressed, the stadium was banned, prompting criticism from Ghana’s minister for youth and sports, Mustapha Ussif.
Consequences of the bans
For those lower and middle ranking African countries that have now qualified for the group stages of the 2023 Afcon qualifiers, being forced to play games abroad due to the bans can be costly and time-consuming and the teams lose home advantage.
Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet told Play the Game: “It will cost too much to do the renovation. It’s about seats, the dressing room, the pitch. Unless something changes, we will be forced to play outside, probably in Senegal, maybe in Morocco. But we will play all our home games outside, so there will not really be home advantage. It’s very frustrating.”
Last year, Namibia was forced to play World Cup qualifiers in South Africa after the two main stadia in the capital Windhoek – the Sam Nujoma Stadium and Independence Stadium – were included in CAF’s original list of unfit stadia.
“It is an embarrassment for our nation that we cannot play our home matches at home. The worst part is that we are pumping money into another economy instead of our own, especially during such difficult times,” Namibia Football Association secretary general Franco Cosmos told The Namibian.
Lesotho, for example, is likely to have to continue playing in Soweto’s Dobsonville Stadium unless the country’s government steps in to fund an upgrade of the Setsoto Stadium in Maseru.
“There’s a lot of costs involved and it’s also a 5–6-hour drive, which will affect the number of supporters that can come, if they can come at all,” Chris Bullock, deputy general secretary at the Lesotho Football Association told Play the Gam