David Owen

Convincing old leaders when to quit is one of many problems confronting the sports movement as it strives to improve governance standards.

This is set to be underlined, I fancy, by two relatively high-profile Presidential election races due to reach their conclusion over the next seven weeks.

First, on March 16 in Addis Ababa, Issa Hayatou, the 70-year-old Cameroonian, will seek an eighth term as President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

I must say, I have quite a lot of time for the one-time middle-distance runner who was a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 2001 until the end of last year.

But the plain fact is, he has now headed CAF for nearly three decades, since 1988, the year of full-blooded Soviet perestroika and Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards.

While you could say Africa wields more real influence today in football than most other fields of human endeavour, it does not seem to me that CAF’s performance in the Hayatou era has been stellar enough to warrant yet another term.

Had he come to me, I would have advised him it was high time to clear the decks for the next generation.

Clearly not everyone feels this way.

I recently had sight of a three-page document, dating from last month, purporting to be a motion of support for Hayatou by members of the Union of Central African Football Federations (UNIFFAC), who include Cameroon.

My amateur translation of the last three paragraphs of the document (which is in French) should suffice to convey its exceedingly adulatory tone.

“Let us reiterate our profound and deferential gratitude for the whole of his work to support the influence of African football,” it reads.

“Let us reaffirm our indestructible support and our mobilisation for this re-election to the Presidency of the CAF Executive Committee.

“Let us pray to Almighty God to give him yet more wisdom and health to lead to its term the salvatory mission that the great football family expects him to pursue.”

Issa Hayatou is seeking another term as the Confederation of African Football President ©Getty Images
Issa Hayatou is seeking another term as the Confederation of African Football President ©Getty Images

Part of the problem with this primordial system, where you wait for the old lion to keel over or become too weak to defend himself adequately, is that many able and ambitious younger officials are likely to conclude time and again that their best course of action is to keep their powder dry in the hope of one day becoming the old leader’s anointed successor.

In this way organisations can all too easily block the path to the top of their most talented potential leaders until they in turn are past their prime.

I have never met Ahmad Ahmad, the Madagascar Football Association President who is Hayatou’s sole challenger, and hence I am unable to pass judgement on his leadership credentials.

But I feel sure that CAF’s interests would have been better served had Hayatou been persuaded to step back to allow space for the most gifted administrators to emerge during his 29 years at the helm (and counting) to fight it out for the right to succeed him.

You might very well conclude from this that the imposition of a strict two or three-term limit would solve the problem cleanly and simply.

But the example of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO), which has a Presidential election due in Uruguay on April 26, suggests that a generational logjam may persist for quite some time after a long reign ends, regardless of whether formal term limits apply.

Mario Vázquez Raña’s stint as PASO President, which ended only with his death aged 82 in 2015, makes Hayatou’s CAF reign look almost fleeting as it lasted for almost 40 years.

Since April 2015, the torch has been held by Julio César Maglione, an admittedly remarkably spry 81 year-old.

The soundings I have been able to take regarding April 26 lead me to suppose that the longer-term crown is most likely to be contested between Carlos Nuzman, a Brazilian who turns 75 this month, and the Dominican Republic’s José Joaquín Puello, who is 76.

The main next-generation challenger – Neven Ilic of Chile, 54 – is, I am told, running the risk of finding himself out in the cold if things do not go his way.

Unless you count the brief two-month stay of Ivar Sisniega, from Mexico, as interim President immediately after Vázquez Raña’s death, the last day that a PASO President was under 70 was 6 June 2002 – and a Nuzman or Puello victory would further extend that 15-year period.

This seems to me the very definition of a gerontocracy.

Yet I have rarely encountered an organisation – a sports organisation certainly – more brimming with vitality and administrative talent amid a diverse range of 30, 40 and 50-somethings.

I am not sure I have an answer.

Mario Vázquez Raña's reign as PASO president lasted for almost 40 years before his death in 2015 ©Getty Images
Mario Vázquez Raña's reign as PASO president lasted for almost 40 years before his death in 2015 ©Getty Images

The IOC has been trying to exercise its influence to improve general governance standards.

But it is almost impossible to keep up the pressure on a topic many regard as a big yawn when times are as turbulent as they are at the moment.

If change is to come quickly, you need a system with teeth, i.e where meaningful sanctions are imposed when agreed standards are not met.

The IOC has the levers at its disposal to get the juggernaut moving in the right direction.

But Lausanne, clearly, is at the heart of the complex machinery of favour-trading that has shaped how decisions are taken in the international sports movement since De Coubertin’s time.

Unless it is in a much stronger position than at present, it is difficult for it to punish bodies from whom it might be seeking concessions on different issues at virtually the same time.

So what then? An outside body?

Well maybe, but it is just as hard to imagine how a non-sports body could implement the sort of sanctions that would probably be needed to establish its authority in the first instance without the unwavering support of those who appointed it.

I do feel for the old sportsmen who largely make up this coterie of ageing administrators who never know when to call it a day.

For elite athletes, after all, the arena in which they operate is unforgiving: it is usually all too obvious when they have gone on for too long.

In the back offices to which some subsequently migrate, things are rarely that clear-cut.

Perhaps then what we need is a credible annual grading or bench-marking system to send them the message that their dodgy knees might have transmitted in a former life.

If Hayatou’s CAF were scoring 10 out of 10 for governance on a regular basis, then the likes of me would know that we should probably shut up about his length of service.

But if a body were rated a two or a three, while I doubt many would go quietly and I would be sceptical about the low mark having too much influence on the voters, at least it would provide a demonstrably objective justification for any young challengers prepared to stick their head above the parapet.