CAF Women’s Champions League part of larger ambition to expand female football in Africa

The eight-team tournament in Cairo kicked off on Friday and is part of a broader strategy to professionalise the women's game on the continent

A new chapter in African women’s football is being written as the first CAF Women’s Champions League kicked off on Friday in Cairo, where eight of the continent’s best teams have gathered for the inaugural edition.

Split into two groups, clubs from Egypt, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, and Kenya are competing in the November 5-19 tournament, with the top two in each group advancing to the semi-finals (November 15).

Egyptian midfielder Noha Mamdouh etched her name in the history books when she netted Wadi Degla’s opening goal in their 3-1 victory over AS Mande on Friday to become the competition’s first goalscorer.

“Our aim is to win the Champions League. Yes, it’s a difficult competition and it has strong teams that include more experienced players but we aim to win this competition,” Wadi Degla head coach Wael El Sayed told The National ahead of his side’s second group game against Equatorial Guinea’s Malabo Kings on Monday (kick-off 6pm).

“We made a good start. Of course the first game, there were some nerves. Some of our players were getting their very first taste of international experience. So some of them were impacted by that, but thankfully we got through it and won the game.”

The most successful women’s football club in Egypt, Wadi Degla have won the domestic league 12 times and were chosen to represent the hosts in the first edition of the Champions League.

The remaining seven teams went through zonal qualifiers to make it to Cairo, where the action is taking place across two venues – the 30 June Stadium and Al Salam Stadium.

CAF, African football's governing body, are aware they have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to women’s football. European football's governing body Uefa launched their Women’s Champions League two decades ago and the women’s game has been exploding in popularity in recent years.

“People in African women’s football are very happy that this competition has finally happened. It’s long, long, long overdue,” said Safia Abdel Dayem, the head of women’s football development at CAF.

“The clubs in women’s football can finally see a bigger goal. What is their investment going to? This weak (domestic) league? It’s no longer that, it’s bigger than that.

“Also, everyone outside of women’s football will learn about female clubs in Africa; it’s never happened before.

“These clubs aren’t Ahly and Zamalek. We have sides like Vihiga Queens, River Angels. Those are clubs that don’t have men’s teams, so this will shed light on these female-only standing clubs.

“So it’s very educative also on women’s football. It will shed light on the African local players that play on the continent but don’t play abroad. It’s positive on every aspect.”

Professionalising the women’s game

The CAF Women’s Champions League is just part of a larger strategy put together by Abdel Dayem and her colleagues, aimed at professionalising women’s football in Africa. For the first time, clubs have had to adhere to strict licensing criteria to contest the zonal qualifiers.

A total of 34 clubs from 34 member associations successfully went through the licensing process and Abdel Dayem believes this was a crucial first step towards further development.

“I believe now, more than ever, more funding will go into women’s football now because there’s an actual continental structure,” she said.

“Fifa are working on a women’s benchmarking report and the numbers have proven that with club licensing criteria set in place, the clubs are more financially successful than the others, there’s no way around it.

“More competitions means better quality of football, more competitions means more playing time for the players, it’s a cycle and this cycle has to keep going on and on and on and we add more elements to it so that the product of women’s football just improves and grows and attracts sponsorships, makes money and attracts broadcasters.”

‘A psychological boost’

The CAF Women’s Champions League has indeed received some interest from broadcasters with beIN Sports airing the matches in the Middle East, North Africa, United States, Canada, and Asia Pacific territories, while SuperSport and Canal+ are broadcasting the action in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other regions can follow the games on Fifa’s Youtube channel or on the CAF website.

“It’s extremely important to be on TV, it allows everyone to watch women’s football, to watch Wadi Degla, to watch the competition,” said Wadi Degla coach El Sayed.

“It gives a huge psychological boost to the players, it helps spread the game, it increases the media interest in women’s football. It’s a very positive to see African women’s football on television.

“It’s a start. Once this competition has a bigger reach, more money will come into the women’s game, we can get more sponsors, more TV ads, it will become a bigger business.”

Room for growth

The idea for this version of the CAF Women’s Champions League was proposed nearly a year and a half ago. For so long, the only women’s football competition on the continent has been the Africa Cup of Nations, and with time, it became apparent that more needs to be done. This inaugural edition is a two-week event, taking place in one host city – a departure from the home-and-away format typically associated with other Champions Leagues.

“We proposed the competition as a closed tournament because we wanted the quality of football to be good,” said Abdel Dayem. “In 10 years, I have absolutely no idea what it will look like.

“This is the first year, we need to go year by year. Yes, we eventually want the competition to grow, but what is the best thing for this inter-club competition for women? It’s too early to tell. Maybe not necessarily home and away, maybe it won’t be attractive enough. For the time being, we don’t know.”

According to Abdel Dayem, all teams participating in the competition will get some sort of prize money, but with arrangements for the event made in such a short period of time, it appears the budget is still a work in progress. Some local sponsors showed interest two weeks prior to kick-off, but the event is being held behind closed doors.

Support from the men’s game

Another move made by CAF recently aimed at empowering the women’s game was a mandate sent out to all African clubs, informing them that any men’s team wanting to participate in the CAF Champions League from the 2022-23 season onwards must also have a women’s team within its setup.

In a country like Egypt – one of the biggest football nations on the continent – giants like Al Ahly and Zamalek have yet to field women’s teams in the domestic league, although Ahly have recently launched a girls’ academy.

In fact, only Wadi Degla and new arrivals El Gouna and National Bank have both men’s and women’s teams in Egypt’s respective top-flight divisions.

“We want to harness club licensing regulations to promote women’s football and professionalise it. This is another way to give that extra push for women’s football – is getting it through men’s football,” said Abdel Dayem. “Women’s football is coming, whether they like it or not. It’s coming.”

El Sayed, who has been part of Wadi Degla’s coaching setup for 12 years before taking over as head coach two years ago, believes having clubs like Ahly and Zamalek join the women’s league would be huge for the game.

“It will definitely help. If a club like Al Ahly starts a women’s team and enters the league it will have a huge impact in spreading the game across the country,” he said.

“It’s a club that has a massive following already and people will want to follow their women’s team and be part of their women’s team as well. Their games will undoubtedly be aired on TV, which would be great. I really wish Al Ahly and Zamalek launch women’s teams, and all the other Premier League teams in Egypt. We thank God that CAF is putting this as a club licensing mandate.”

A cultural shift

Abdel Dayem used to play for Wadi Degla and has witnessed a big shift in mentality towards women’s football in Egypt. It has become more culturally accepted for girls to pick up the sport and academies are popping up across the country with 100s of young players signing up.

“There is pressure now on the clubs from the younger girls and their parents,” she said. “Young girls want to play football. Al Ahly’s academy already has 100 girls and it just launched a few months ago. There is obvious growth.

“A long time ago, that wasn’t the case, I was the only one in class playing football, and everyone was calling me a tomboy and saying, ‘why is she dressed like that?’ I was the only one. I was having a blast but the reaction was like this. Can you imagine now? It’s not only one, I know so many girls that play football and it’s not unusual anymore and their parents are proud of them and they want to find ways to help them. It’s not like the old days when parents would worry that their girls would grow too much muscle or this or that.

“Now, it’s more like, ‘I’m so proud of my daughter, she’s playing football, how can I support her?’ Our mentality has changed, the growth of the international women’s game has led people here to believe in the game. We have so many good female role models across the international football world, it makes parents believe their daughters can play and can make a career out of it.”

The CAF Women’s Champions League has rolled out the hash-tag ‘#itsTIMEitsNow”. An apt slogan for a continent with so much potential in the sport; this new competition is just the start.

Updated: November 8th 2021, 1:29 PM