There was incompetence on a grand scale in the final round of qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations in early October. Nigeria blew it, to the disgust of their angry fans, by conceding an injury-time goal at home to Guinea. Egypt, the holders, and Cameroon had already stumbled out. Those three former champions will be missing when Gabon and Equatorial Guinea jointly host the tournament early next year, as will the 1996 winners, South Africa.

Bafana Bafana went out in spectacular style, in a way that could only happen in African football. In contrast to the angry Nigerian fans in Abuja who pelted their own players with water-bottles and fruit, stormed the post-match press conference, causing it to be abandoned, and stoned the team bus, the South Africans were jubilant after a goalless home draw against Sierra Leone.

Players and coaches hugged each other and a full house in Nelspruit celebrated during the team's lap of honour. The TV coverage was also triumphant: South Africa, who had played for a draw believing it would leave them top of the group, were through. They were all wrong. Three teams finished level on points and the deciding factor was not goal difference, but the ‘mini-league' results from those three teams — Niger, South Africa, and Sierra Leone. Niger took top place instead.

So, only a year after hosting the World Cup, and after a lengthy programme of investment and support from their own government and Fifa, South Africa could not beat Sierra Leone, nor finish ahead of Niger. Their neighbours Botswana upstaged them by qualifying, like Niger, for the first time. "To come out of the hosting of the World Cup and then fail to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup is patently a disaster," wrote the South African commentator Mark Gleeson. To have gone into the game without knowing the rules was something of a disaster, too.

The South Africa coach, Pitso Mosimane, was keen to shift the blame on to the game's administrators. "Africa is a jungle, my friend," he said when the bad news had sunk in. "The European and South American formats are so much better because everything is running smoothly, but it's very difficult to play in Africa."

It's hard to imagine that nobody in an executive position at the South African Football Association had read the rules. It is all very well blaming the coach, but there are administrative staff who must also be feeling very, very silly. Sadly, this sort of cock-up is not unusual in a continent on which mismanagement, incompetence and corruption are rife. Match-fixing, rigged elections, missing money, fake international matches, overage players — all have made the headlines in the past year or so. 

Who are the worst offenders? The leading contenders were in action in Kampala in the final round of qualifying — not on the pitch, but in the VIP area, where Kenyan Football Federation officials looked on. The Harambee Stars, Kenya's national team, finished their campaign with a goalless draw. It denied Uganda a place in the finals, much to the disappointment of 60,000 fans at the most lucrative game ever staged in the country.

Kenya merely confirmed what everybody already knew: they were just not good enough. They used to be. In 2008, the KFF claimed its coffers were empty so the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) loaned them the funds and took control of the national team. The KPL then appointed professional managers and coaches and, in only six months, Kenya rose an astonishing 52 places to 68th in the Fifa world rankings. In early 2009, the KFF grabbed back control, fired the most successful manager in Kenyan football history and replaced him with a series of incompetents, including an underachieving relative of the governing body's chairman. Kenya slid from 68th to 131st in the Fifa rankings, where they are now surrounded by the likes of Tanzania, Belize, Yemen and Nepal. The corrupt mismanagement beggars belief. With typical greed, the KFF never repaid a single shilling of the KPL loan.

Mosimane is right: it is difficult to play in Africa. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kenya, where the national federation (you could pluralise that, as there have been three ‘official' governing bodies recently) is arguably the most corrupt, incompetent, wasteful, self-serving sports body in the world. Fifa has banned them twice in the last few years, and paid most of the costs of recent elections in a bid to restore order. The man who oversaw years of chaos and corruption, Mohamed Hatimy, was beaten in October's poll — but the winner, Sam Nyamweya, has also been in the thick of it. He has promised to revamp youth football, women's football and the national team, but fans have heard it all before. More than anything, they want stability.

Despite all this, at club level, Kenyan football is thriving and highly competitive. The Harambee Stars have failed again but the run-in to the KPL season saw seven of the 16 teams still chasing the title and four fighting against relegation. The league is well run, reasonably well attended, and reasonably well off. The KPL is in its third year of a television agreement that is the envy of many other domestic leagues: it started at more than US$1.5million a year to show games live, and last summer was renewed for five years at a rate around 60% higher than the initial deal. The contract, with broadcast giants SuperSport, is an example to others. By uniting to reject corrupt officials, clubs can run a successful league on their own. 

Last May, in Accra, Ghana, a number of coaches, administrators, national FA officials, journalists and businessmen gathered for a conference on African football. Bob Munro, chairman of Mathare United and one of the founding fathers of the breakaway KPL, gave a presentation in which he outlined some of the challenges his and other clubs have faced. Between 2000 and 2004, he told the audience, a partial list of KFF misdeeds included:

  • The reported theft of gate receipts from international matches hosted by the KFF plus nearly half of all KFF and Fifa funds;
  • Recruitment and fielding of blatantly overage players on the national Under-17 team; 
  • Direct involvement of top KFF officials in poaching players from their member clubs and personally selling them abroad;
  • Repeated violation of more than half the articles in the KFF constitution;
  • Failure to allow member clubs to inspect the KFF accounts and to circulate annual audited accounts to the clubs;
  • Marginalisation and exclusion of member clubs, coaches, players and referees in decision-making.

Not bad for starters. But there is plenty more. The KFF ‘forgot' to hold elections before their term of office legally expired in March 2004. A few months later the KFF chairman, Maina Kariuki, the national treasurer Mohamed Hatimy and the secretary general Hussein Swaleh were charged in court with the theft of 55 million Kenyan shillings (more than $700,000) of KFF funds. 

"Their lawyer defended them with the surprising argument that the money does not belong to the government or KFF but to Fifa — as if stealing funds from Fifa was acceptable," said Munro. "The case was sent for review and seven years later is still pending. Two of the three officials charged in court, Hatimy and Swaleh, are still national football officials." Hatimy, nonetheless, stood in the recent KFF elections and finished third.

Nothing improved in 2005. An investigation into football corruption revealed that the first eight international matches played under a new KFF president produced gate income of "not a single penny". KFF officials acted as unregistered agents to sell players abroad and embezzled Fifa funds. Thirty computers donated by Fifa disappeared. Two senior officials from a rival group were beaten up so badly they needed hospital treatment and the KFF chairman was involved in a car accident which, he said, was linked to football politics. While he was in hospital he was ousted.

The following year, 2006, was the inglorious ‘double' year, when there were suddenly two KFFs. Nyamweya, a former KFF secretary general, whose club was in danger of being relegated, gained support from the sports minister to set up a rival KFF. The government registrar gave official recognition to the new body, but Fifa kicked them out, banned Kenya for a few months and restored Hatimy's bunch of no-hopers. Over to Munro again. "Since taking over in a boardroom coup in 2006, what has the Fifa-recognised KFF led by Mohamed Hatimy actually achieved?" he asked. Besides keeping themselves in power and enjoying VIP get-togethers with the Confederation of African Football and Fifa, the answer is given is another of Munro's partial lists, which highlights:

  • Setting the worst record for losses in international competitions in Kenyan football history;
  • Destroying the most successful team in Kenyan football history;
  • Destroying the FKL (Football Kenya Limited) Nationwide League and FKL Cup as credible competitions;
  • Failing to revive local leagues, or to do anything for women's football or youth development;
  • Failing to organise regular coaching and refereeing courses;
  • Failing to provide their member clubs with annual audited accounts.

They had their ways of staying in power, too. For example, in a KFF sub-branch election in Thika, nine clubs were registered, active and eligible to vote. But during the election, more than 70 ‘briefcase' clubs, who existed only on paper, emerged and were allowed to vote. The nine genuine clubs walked out in disgust — which is effectively what all the top clubs did in 2003 when they resigned from the KFF. A statement read, "Our clubs have lost all trust and confidence in our KFF officials and no longer consider it beneficial for the future of Kenyan football to remain associated with them."

The KPL clubs started taking control of the league in 2006 and — just like their counterparts in England, who started the Premier League in 1992 — have gone from strength to strength. The KPL is now owned and run entirely by the clubs themselves. Crowds were in the low hundreds when it started, and have risen to an average of 2,000-3,000 per game, with the big derby between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia attracting 15,000 or more. Media coverage has improved considerably and people talk about games and players. There have been bad times, too, most notably the stadium stampede in October 2010 when, at a Gor-Leopards match, five people died.

Kick-off times have been changed to allow teams easier journeys and, crucially, to make sure they start before televised Premier League games from England. The television deal is perhaps the biggest success of the KPL. Their improved five-year contract with SuperSport is worth $11.5million, a fraction of what the South African league gets but a huge sum compared to many other African leagues. Gary Rathbone, head of Africa at SuperSport International, explained, "It was a strategic move by us to invest in football in Africa. We have rights to the English Premier League and other European games, but the costs are high, there are other limitations, and we wanted both to diversify and to invest in sport in our own continent."

The broadcaster has deals for domestic leagues in South Africa (a whopping $277m over five years), Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and Ghana and have just signed up Uganda. They have a good relationship with Fifa and the world body, as well as CAF, is happy to see leagues being run as independent, sustainable commercial enterprises, affiliated to but not administered by their national FAs. "We give the leagues enough money to enable them to run independently," said Rathbone. "We help them to send officials on courses, and to spend time at the German Bundesliga, with whom we have a good relationship."

The KPL, he says, is "a flagship league, a beacon that shows how you can succeed". In the three years since SuperSport started televising games, Rathbone has seen all sorts of improvements — ‘bigger crowds, better management, more professionalism, better organisation, better at handling the media, a new licensing system, Under-19 teams attached to the clubs." A lot of this, in Kenya and elsewhere, is a result of what officials learned from the Bundesliga. There is also more commercial interest in a ‘clean' KPL, with clubs attracting individual sponsors. "TV is a key driver for change," said Rathbone. "The way forward is for leagues to get more involved with the corporate sector and less involved with governments and the old FA chairman types."

It is a point made by Nicholas Musonya, general secretary of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations. He said last year, "We cannot have strong national teams without strong leagues but we do not have strong leagues because too often the associations are run by the wrong people, people who get involved for politics or money, not for football. Until we sort ourselves out, we will have the same old circus."

"What the FAs don't realise," said Munro, "is that if the league succeeds, the FA get the credit. If it fails, the FA can blame the clubs. It's a win-win situation for them. Any strategy that improves the national league is going to improve the national team, because many national players will come from the local league. A better national team means more money in TV rights and gate receipts for the FA. Those are their biggest sources of income."

Why are there so many ‘wrong people' in charge? "Football is often seen as a stepping-stone into national politics rather than an end in itself," said Munro. "In Kenya and elsewhere, too often we end up with a blazered bunch of self-serving predators who treat the FA as if it was their private property, marginalise the real stakeholders in decision-making and then change the rules to keep themselves in power. 

"In Africa and even Fifa, the way forward is for the clubs, coaches, players and referees who make the football on the field to have a much greater role in making the policies and decisions off the field."