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Kenya and Zimbabwe have both been suspended by the world’s football governing body, FIFA, owing to government interference in the operations of the national football federations. Nairobi and Harare dissolved their federations late last year and replaced them with government-appointed officials. The suspension, overshadowed for now by Russia’s dramatic banishment from virtually all international sport, will hit the two countries in the pocket and freeze international participation. Sports researcher Wycliffe Njororai Simiyu explains why this is straight from FIFA’s aggressive policy against what it terms “third-party interference”.
What’s the background?
The suspension of Kenya and Zimbabwe was announced by FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino. In Kenya’s case, FIFA’s action comes after sports minister Amina Mohamed dissolved the Football Kenya Federation office in November 2021. A caretaker committee headed by retired judge Aaron Ringera was appointed to take charge of football activities in the country. The federation’s president, Nick Mwendwa, was subsequently arrested and charged with misappropriation of funds from FIFA and the government. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Zimbabwe football federation was similarly dissolved by government in November last year. The decision was announced by the country’s Sports and Recreation Commission, a government-appointed body. Federation officials were accused of misappropriating money given to the association by the state for Zimbabwe’s participation at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations finals. Four federation officials, including the president, are being investigated for mismanagement and lack of accountability in the use of public funds, as well as allegations of sexual harassment of female referees.
The two countries are now locked out of all national FIFA supported personnel development activities for administrators, coaches and referees. They are also barred from international competitions.
These include all international club and national team competitions under the auspices of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). Local leagues can continue but eventual winners would not be entered for CAF competitions until the suspension is lifted.
According to FIFA, any allegations of administrative malpractices should be investigated internally. Investigations should fall under the local federation by-laws and FIFA stipulations rather than being carried out by government. These internal mechanisms are meant to shield FIFA from any external interference in its operations as a private entity.
What are the immediate implications for the two countries?
Zimbabwe was first to face the consequences of the government’s move. Not only did they play the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations under the threat of expulsion, they also missed out on US$500,000 prize money awarded to each of the participating teams.
Kenya also suffered the consequences before the FIFA decision had been announced. The national women’s team to the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualifiers pulled out at the last minute from playing Uganda. The ousted Kenyan federation office wrote to the African federation saying it was unable to prepare for the tie because it had been stripped of its powers by the government and locked out of its offices.
The Confederation of African Football’s cancellation of the match was a tacit endorsement of the dissolved Kenyan administration. It was a clear signal that the government-appointed caretaker office was deemed illegitimate.
Now that FIFA has formally announced the suspension, further consequences will follow.
Kenyan and Zimbabwean football teams, including club sides vying for Confederation of African Football tournaments, will not play internationally. Teams and the national football associations will remain suspended until FIFA reinstates the memberships of the two countries. Their ability to qualify for the men’s 2023 Africa Cup of Nations is thrown into doubt.
Loss of funding from FIFA. The two countries will not benefit from any development programmes, courses or training from FIFA and CAF. Referees from the two countries will not be assigned to regional and international matches.
Disruption of local leagues will follow without the incentive to qualify for African competitions. Their global ranking will fall, eroding the national brand and prospects for players seeking professional contracts abroad.
How have past suspensions of African federations played out?
Between 2000 and 2010, nearly a dozen African associations, including Nigeria, Kenya, Chad, Madagascar and Ethiopia, were suspended. Kenya’s previous suspension was in 2004. Botswana and Togo were on the verge of facing similar punishment.
Given the massive inflow of funds from FIFA and the popularity of football, African governments tend to give in to FIFA demands to reinstate officials. The typical way back is to agree to the formation of a “normalisation committee” by the international federation in return for a lifting of the suspension.
The suspension of members by FIFA over what it calls third-party interference (mainly governments) goes back to 1990. Small, economically weak countries were the main target at first. The list included Greece, Cameroon, Sudan, Indonesia and Albania.
By 2000, during Sepp Blatter’s term as FIFA president, the number of cases in which FIFA had intervened on behalf of member associations facing some element of loss of control to government agencies had increased from four to 13. On the list were Namibia, Poland, Zambia, Hungary, Cameroon (again), Benin, Guinea, Tanzania, and Brazil.
In every case but one – Guinea’s suspension lasted two years – the targeted governments quickly complied with FIFA’s demands.
What are the options?
The two countries will soon wake up to the reality of not participating in any international soccer matches. They are out of the running for the popular FIFA World Cup as well qualifying for other national and club competitions. There’s also the loss of substantial FIFA revenues flowing to member associations.
Faced with this prospect, Kenya and Zimbabwe will have to seek a compromise with FIFA. The first step is to set up a “normalisation committee” to prepare for another round of elections.
Second is to settle allegations of misappropriation of funds and other misdemeanours pending against the suspended officials.
Short of a compromise with FIFA, Kenya and Zimbabwe could plunge into football limbo for the foreseeable future.