Cameroon’s victorious players were still dancing on the field at the Stade de l’Amitié in Libreville, Gabon, when Issa Hayatou — African soccer’s apparently unassailable kingpin — decided he deserved a moment of triumph, too.
He was present, at the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, to hand out medals to the winners and to offer a consoling hand to the losers. It was a role he had come to know well over the course of the 29 years he had spent as president of the Confederation of African Football, African soccer’s governing body.
That did not stop him from breaking just a little with protocol. Standing on the podium that had been constructed in the center of the field, Mr. Hayatou briefly clasped the trophy with both hands, held it aloft, and turned, beaming, to the crowd.
Mr. Hayatou, 70, had every reason to be happy. He had just witnessed his homeland beat Egypt to win his tournament, the competition he had transformed, in a stadium and a country he had all but handpicked to host it. In that moment, Mr. Hayatou’s power must have seemed complete.
Not two months later, it has evaporated completely. On Thursday, at the federation’s congress in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Mr. Hayatou was finally removed as the head of African soccer, resoundingly beaten, in a 34-to-20 vote, by Ahmad Ahmad, the previously unheralded president of Madagascar’s football association.
Mr. Hayatou’s deposal represents yet another staging post in world soccer’s gradual attempts to improve its image, to learn the lessons of its scandal-ridden past. He has lost not only the federation’s presidency, but also the post on FIFA’s Council that goes with it.
That, too, will pass to Mr. Ahmad, meaning that of the 22 men involved in the controversial vote to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar — the decision that eventually led to FIFA’s being engulfed in crisis and, from there, to the downfall of Sepp Blatter — only six remain.
Indeed, their fates now read like an updated version of the old rhyme about Henry VIII’s wives: disgraced, retired, died, disgraced, indicted, survived. Of the last group, Hany Abo Rida, Senes Erzik, Vitaly Mutko, Marios Lefkaritis and Michel D’Hooghe will no longer be in place by the time FIFA’s next Congress ends, leaving just Spain’s Ángel María Villar. Such a seismic shift indicates not just how pervasive the stench of corruption was, but how widespread were the calls for change.
Though he has strenuously denied any and all allegations of corruption hurled in his direction — and he has never been convicted of any wrongdoing — it is that mood that has claimed Mr. Hayatou, long seen as both an embodiment and a relic of FIFA’s darkest days, as its latest victim. He was the thwarted opponent who turned into a crony of Mr. Blatter’s; he was FIFA’s interim president after Mr. Blatter fell last year. He was tainted.
Mr. Ahmad, very deliberately, cultivated an image as an insurgent candidate, promising sweeping change and gleaming transparency; standard reformist promises, of course, but sufficiently alluring in the current climate to win the support not just of the majority of the continent’s federations but the tacit backing of Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, too.
When the result of the election was announced, Mr. Ahmad’s supporters in the congress hall lifted him onto their shoulders in jubilation. Mr. Hayatou, meanwhile, was consoled by those few of his longtime colleagues who had not, at last, deserted him. As one euphoric Twitter hashtag had it: #Hayatouhasfallen.
The reality, though, is much more complicated than such a partisan, monochrome interpretation.
No matter how numerous or deep his flaws, there is little doubt that Mr. Hayatou has unquestionably overseen a transformation not only in the Confederation of African Football, known as CAF, but also in African soccer more generally, too.
The son of a sultan in northern Cameroon and brother to a former prime minister of the country, Mr. Hayatou — a middle-distance runner in high school and, at 6-foot-5, unsurprisingly a former basketball player — was always destined for a career in politics. After working as a physical education teacher, he became general secretary of the Cameroon football association at age 28; by 1982, he was the government’s sports minister; six years later, he was president of CAF, and the most powerful man in African soccer.
When he ascended to that post, only two African teams could qualify for the World Cup, and few had ever made much of an impact on the tournament; the continent’s own competition, the Cup of Nations, involved just eight sides; the African Champions Cup was struggling for appeal and relevance.
In the month that he departs, 29 years later, Africa is expecting to learn that as many as 10 of its teams will qualify for the World Cup from 2026 onward; in 2010, thanks in no small part to Mr. Hayatou’s indefatigable campaigning for FIFA to rotate the tournament among continents, it hosted the tournament for the first time; the Cup of Nations has doubled in size; and the African Champions League is more lucrative than at any other time in its history.
No, the issue with Mr. Hayatou — the source of all the joy at his departure — is not rooted in what he has achieved. It is, in part, how he has gone about it. Clad in his traditional flowing white boubou, he has always been haughty — he once denounced a journalist for questioning his voting record at FIFA by pointing out that he was “not even as old as my son.”
He changed the rules on candidates for the CAF presidency so that not only were age limits abolished — allowing him to stand this year for what would have been his eighth term — but anyone wishing to stand had to be a member of the organization’s executive committee already, severely limiting the pool of possibilities.
Increasingly, he did away with any pretense at democracy, cherry-picking which countries would host the Cup of Nations and rarely explaining his reasoning. According to an Egyptian court, a $1 billion deal with the French company Lagardère Sports for marketing and television rights was accepted without allowing competing bids.
What humility he did develop seemed to come late. Last month, Mr. Hayatou insisted that he would not have stood for re-election “if I believed that I would lose.” Last week, reports citing anonymous sources said that he might stand down midway through the term because it would have been the “right thing” to do.
That is immaterial now. Mr. Hayatou has been beaten, dethroned after three decades. To many in African soccer, Mr. Ahmad represents a bright future, one in which the sport is no longer run as a personal fief by and for its longtime strongman.
Not long after Mr. Hayatou took up his post, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. Now, 17 years on, the continent is still waiting, with little hope of that situation changing: Egypt is the highest ranked team in Africa, sitting 20th on FIFA’s list.
For all of Mr. Hayatou’s talk of trying to stanch the flow of gifted players to Europe, many of the continent’s domestic leagues remain mired in chaos, short on talent and funding. Now that he is gone, both his supporters and his critics must begin to puzzle with questions nobody quite knows the answer to: Is African soccer in the state it is in because of Mr. Hayatou, or despite him? And, more important, will whatever comes next be better?