Sunday, June 24, 2018

Soccer, Politics And The African Condition

By Dan Amor
As of Friday last week when this piece was written, Senegal was the first African team to score a goal at the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia. They recorded a 2-1 win over Poland in Tuesday's World Cup clash in Moscow, to join Japan at the top of Group H. It was a huge relief for Africa, the black continent, which was decimated and devastated with the 2-0 defeat of Nigeria by Croatia baring the 3-1 loss of Egypt to Russia on Tuesday. Indeed, it wasn't a memorable start for Africa whose national governments see soccer as a tool for political influence and personal aggrandizement.
The atmosphere was very inclement throughout Africa, but the mood changed when Nigeria demonstrated their superiority to Iceland with a 2-0 win at regulated time. Nigerians and Africans at large, were now in a celebration mood as at press time on Friday. This is because soccer is the opium of the youths, and most adults alike. It is therefore the most unifying factor in any modern society leading to attempts by successive administrations in Africa to make enormous political capital from it. Consequently, the beautiful leather game plays a monumental role in local and international politics.
In September 1991, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, the ex- Air Force pilot and former president of Ghana held a sumptuous party for the Starlets, the victorious Under 17 national team that had just returned from Italy with the Junior World Cup, and personally served food and drinks to the players. It was not that the nation was short on barmaids. The chairman of the then ruling Provisional National Defence Council, having been pressurized into promising multi-party elections and intent on transforming himself into civilian candidate for the presidency, wanted to be seen as the head of state who delivered Ghana's first global soccer title. Such is the power of football that, the world over, aspiring and actual rulers, whether constitutionally elected or military dictators, or civilian autocrats, have tended to exploit the game's influence on the populace in order to pep up their administrations. Football is more than a game. In Africa, where the activities of military dictators and self-imposed, iron-fist life presidents had stifled open political debates, the ordinary man's idea of self-expression emanates from the terraces.
If you meet two people anywhere on the continent, freely exchanging ideas, chances are that the topics will be football. Tony Yeboah, the former Ghanaian international who took the English Premiership by storm in the 1990's was in no doubt the power of the game. "When I scored that hatrick for Leeds against Monaco, a number of Leeds fans waved the Ghana flag throughout the game and also on the flight home. What would make a white man worship an African nation? Football is something else. I can say with all certainty that I'm better known here than Ghana's Ambassador to London. That is football." The importance of the game to Africa is reflected in names given to national teams. Nigeria which won the Junior World Cup in 1985, and took the African Unity Cup to South Africa in 1996, call their national team, the Super Eagles. Until they won the 1980 Cup of Nations, they were simply Green Eagles. The Green is the national colour of Africa's most populous country; the Eagle, bird of prey and King of birds, symbolises its might. On attainment of republican status in July 1960, Ghanaian authorities named the national team, the Black Stars, "symbolising the rising spirit of the black race", to quote the late Ohene Djan, first Director of Sports of independent Ghana.
Egyptians call their national team, the Pharoahs, recalling the era of the kings who supervised the construction of the Pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In Morocco, the national team is named after the Atlas Mountains, reflecting durability and aspiring to the heights. The national team of Côte d' Ivoire, the Elephants, symbolises the might of one of Africa's most successful economies. In Africa, where most soccer federations are financed from state coffers, governments tend to look on the game as the public relations wing of the ruling class. Administrators are often appointed without the interest of the game at heart but according to how sycophantic they are and to the extent they can use the popularity of the game to further the interests of their rulers.
The birth of the Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF), has a lot to do with national aspirations. CAF owes its genesis to the meeting in the lobby of the Avenida Hotel in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, of representatives of the then three independent sovereign nations, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, who were attending the 1956 FIFA Congress. The three representatives laid the foundation for the continental soccer confederation charged with organizing the African Nations Cup. After further talks in Cairo, Egypt, CAF was formed with membership open to independent African nations. Sudan was chosen to host the first Cup of Nations Championship in 1957, won by Egypt. To this day, CAF is among the first international organizations any nation achieving independence in Africa applies to join. Applications for membership of the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity ( now the African Union) and CAF, go hand in hand. When Egypt were crowned Champions of Africa at the first championship, the rest of Africa looked on in envy, unable to participate because of colonial rule.
From its inception, it was obvious that the Cup of Nations would be used as a very important political tool. When South Africa refused to enter a multi-racial squad for the very first championship, the apartheid regime were refused participation even though they were pioneers in the formation of CAF. When the championship moved to Cairo in 1959, South Africa were still barred because they could not accede to CAF's request for a multi-racial squad. In 1961, at the pre-championship congress in Ethiopia, South Africa were formally expelled from CAF and excluded from all continental championships. Under its late president, Ydnekatchew Tessema, CAF worked for the expulsion of South Africa from FIFA and banning them from all soccer matches in protest against its obnoxious apartheid policy. It is significant that South Africa's maiden contribution to the African game on their return to the international stage, was to host the elites of Africa in the 20th Cup of Nations.
Politics and politicking have always been part of the game. In 1978, with students and the general population baying for the head of General Kutu Acheampong of Ghana, the then head of state and military dictator sought to bring the Cup of Nations Championship to Ghana to douse the tension. It was used, rather unsuccessfully, as a tool to sell the dictator's Union Government concept - a doctrine that the military, the police and civilians should come together to control the affairs of state. When the Black Stars won the championship, government official lost no precious time in preaching the new doctrine at the various victory ceremonies. In Nigeria, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, manipulated to his political advantage the hosting right given the country in the 1995 Youth World Championship. It was probably part of the reason the June 12, 1993 presidential election was annulled by his regime so that he could stay up to 1995 to superintendent the Junior World Cup.
Babangida appointed cronies to oversee the construction of facilities for the global event. That Nigeria could not get the infrastructure ready in time had everything to do with the eventual politicization of the right. And the latest excesses of that brutal regime did put Nigerian football in jeopardy when he annulled the most placid presidential election ever conducted in the history of the country in June 1993. His successor, the late General Sani Abacha, wanted to use Nigeria's superlative performance at the Atlanta '96 to win international sympathy as a result of Nigeria's isolation by the international community following the state murder by hanging of the renowned writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni compatriots in November 1995, to no avail.
There is also international football politics, a scenario that borders on Africa's relationship with those who pioneered the game. Until 1966, when Africa boycotted the preliminary round of the World Cup staged in England, the continental representatives were required to play the champions of Asia for a single place in the then 16-nations World Cup. Currently in Africa, the game is losing its glamour, authenticity and appeal due to paucity of investment in it from the private sector and concerned individuals. Whereas in Great Britain, for instance, the influence wielded by football club chairmen and owners has been more pronounced today, the reverse is the case in Africa. In Britain in particular and Europe at large, gone are the days when the men who ran the clubs were scarcely seen or heard, men who treated their involvement in the game as little more than a hobby. Now, the likes of Sir John Hall, Alan Sugar and Martin Edwards have begun to loom as large in the public eye as their high-profile managers and star players.
For the game to come alive again in our continent, we need to take a long, hard look at the men who run football and the factors which have propelled them out of the shadows and into the full glare of the media spotlight; and the way in which an aspiring chairman might go about buying his way into this most exclusive elite. What do men such as the late Pillar of Sports in Africa Chief MKO Abiola who was chairman of the defunct "Abiola Babes FC"; Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, erstwhile chairman of "Iwuanyanwu Nationale FC", and a host of others get out of taking on such a high-pressure role? Is it still the ego factor, the need for some mega-wealthy businessmen to win public acclaim and popularity? Or is it nothing more than the biggest and best opportunity in the world to play fantasy football. How do they deal with the knowledge that while the rewards for success can bring wealth beyond belief, the price of failure could be death threats and public humiliation? What is happening to African football given the continent's woeful performance in the ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia?

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