Original Piece by Brian Wesaala Updated Apr 28, 2020 on New Africa Daily
Football was introduced to Africa in the 1800s by British, French, and Portuguese colonialists, including missionaries, soldiers, and civil servants who popularized the game across the continent. More than a century later, the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) was established. It was during the first African Cup of Nations Tournament in Khartoum, Sudan, in February 1957. Newly independent African states encouraged football as a way to forge a national identity and to gain international recognition. Soon Africans embraced football and made it their own. Those involved in the administration of the game acquired organizational skills and began to self-organize, forming clubs that would later serve as platforms for promoting nationalism and anti-colonial resistance. Football players gained the kind of self-confidence that comes from sporting victories, and eventually political victories.
One instance of football being used as a tool for anti-colonial resistance that stands out is the formation of the Algerian National Liberation Front’s “national” team in 1958 during the Algerian War of Independence against France. Ten Algerian professional players left their base in France to join the nationalist movement in their home country, with three objectives, as were outlined by the FLN: 1- to deny France the service of key players; 2- to heighten international awareness of the Algerian fight for independence; and 3- to demonstrate that the FLN’s war enjoyed the support of Algerians at home and abroad. This episode received the international attention that FLN had hoped for. Algeria won its independence from France in 1962.
Diaspora Africans Show the Way
The end of colonialism did not stop the emigration of Algerians and others from former French North and West African colonies to France, forming a new generation of French players of African descent. Perhaps the best known team whose members are children from this wave of immigration is the victorious 1998 World Cup team, which included players like Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, and Patrick Vieira, and was hailed as the epitome of multiculturalism. But France’s efforts to integrate its minority citizens have been mixed. Racial and ethnic tensions increased as the French team’s fortunes declined. When the French and Algerian national teams played a friendly at Stade de France in 2001, the site of its 1998 World Cup triumph, Algerian supporters booed when the French national anthem was played, and following the score reaching 4–1 for France in the second half, spectators ran onto the field and the match had to be suspended.
The French team has since picked itself up, and was triumphant at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. More than half the team was made up of second- and third-generation Africans; the best players of the tournament, N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, and Kylian Mbappé, all had roots in Africa. This was not unique to France, as teams such as Belgium and Germany also had their fair share of second- and third-generation immigrants.
Pan-Africanism is a global movement of solidarity among the people of African descent in Africa and in the diaspora. In football, pan-Africanism was especially strong as countries began to agitate for and gain independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah exemplified this. Following Ghana’s independence in the 1957, Nkrumah set himself on a mission to rid the country of the vestige of European influence and sought to transcend the boundaries constructed by Europeans, hoping to spread his ideologies of socialism and interventionism throughout independent Africa.
Nkrumah used football as a platform to push his radical pan-Africanist agenda. Immediately after gaining independence, Ghana joined CAF and hosted the 1963 Cup of Nations. Regional tournaments were also organized to showcase the Ghana national football team and Nkrumah attended many of these matches.
Interestingly, the Ghana national team is nicknamed Black Stars in memory of the Black Star Line, an all-black steamship venture launched in the United States in 1919 by controversial Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Football provided an arena where Black Africans could organize and host gatherings under Apartheid. The Orlando Pirates, South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa’s most storied club held fundraisers and other events for the ANC and in support of Mandela. These agitations brought international sanctions and South Africa was kicked out of CAF (and subsequently FIFA) for barring Black Africans from its teams. It was not until a non-segregated South African Football Association (SAFA) was formed that they were allowed back into global football.
Decades later, South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This was sort of a victory for the long anti-Apartheid struggle — and for the continent to lead a global event. Within South Africa it served to popularize football among white South Africans who had always favored rugby. It was an important event in terms of South African soft power, even though many reports have shown the cost outweighed the economic benefits to the country.
Football, Politics, and Business
The past is important for its lessons, but we must not be stuck in past habits. The same skills that helped Africans organize into clubs early on and build successful anti-colonial movements contribute today to the the proliferation of teams across the continent. It’s our duty as football professionals to tap into these capabilities to bring about more systematic development of the sport in Africa. Thousands of African players are now plying their trade in Europe and elsewhere. What can the countries of their ancestors do to lure them back to the continent, not necessarily to starve the global stage of their talent, but to enrich the game?
But politics continues to interfere with the game. It was heroic in the past, but today it’s meddlesome, much to the detriment of the sport. European Football has become increasingly commercialized. Few F.C. Barcelona fans outside of Catalonia are even aware of that club’s role in the struggle against Fascism.
Few actually care, the team is in the business of football; to sell tickets and broadcast rights.
Yet, in Africa the game of football today remains a vehicle for politicians. As a result the politicization of football has led to low levels of professionalism in managing the sport. So what can be done to rectify this? Football and politics are closely intertwined. How can we find the right balance to allow for professionalism and help the sport to grow?
In my native Kenya, aspiring politicians have used football as a springboard to national political office. At least four former heads of the football federation have gone on to become members of parliament or hold other political offices. They have used the popularity of the sport to help build their personal brands and launch their careers. And once in positions of power, many continue to use the sport to prop up their popularity, sometimes picking winners and fixing games to please the crowds. In the process, they have hollow the game of much-needed professional management. In politics the perception of being a winner is often very important and an association with football can provide that. Of course, football today is also used by opposition groups as a tool for mass mobilization as we saw in Egypt with the Ultras who played a big role in creating the conditions which led to the 2011 revolution during the Arab Spring and the 2013 coup there. We saw an echo of that “Arab Spring” in Algeria last year in which, again, football fans played a key role.
Football is above all a sport, but for the game to spread, Africans must see it more as a business and less as a political tool. To realise this, we must put together corresponding action plans to enhance the game and bring it to an international level. Football must shed its political past — no matter how glorious — and become a vehicle for economic development in the continent.