On football, pan-Africanism, and pretty much everything else.
This is a difficult article to write, such is the fetishisation and exoticisation of African culture, and, consequently, its football. It’s intended firstly, like most of the articles featured on this blog, to tell a story—in this case, the story of how football, through its popularity among the West African masses and its subsequent adoption by anti-colonial leaders, helped to build nations and unite a continent. But it’s intended also to be a sort of celebration of African football (itself a troublingly homogeneous term), and this is a much tougher task than mere storytelling.
If it’s ever suggested that African football is ‘special’ because it’s alien and somehow an ‘other,’ apologies. African football is a unique spectacle, yes, but not because of the ‘Dark Continent’ bullshit so often spouted. (Think voodoo spells, witch doctors, all that.) It’s special because it’s political. And the joy synonymous with it springs from that politicisation. In West Africa especially, football is more than a sport; football is a symbol of an oppressed peoples’ independence. And that’s where the storytelling comes in.
Thirteen years ago, the tiny West African island nation of Cape Verde won its first international trophy. Fittingly, it was the Amílcar Cabral Cup, a tournament named after the man who did most to secure the country’s independence from their Portuguese colonisers. The significance wasn’t lost on the victors.
Earlier this year, Cape Verde went one step further. Under the coaching of part-time football manager, part-time air-traffic controller Lúcio Antunes, they reached their first ever African Cup of Nations (CAN). They kicked the tournament off with a creditable 0-0 draw with hosts South Africa, before a similarly gutsy display saw their match with Morocco finish 1-1. Remarkably, a win in their final group game, against a good Angola side, would see the minnows qualify for the quarter finals; and win they did, 2-1, scoring twice in the last ten minutes (including a goal in stoppage time). Giants Ghana proved too strong in the next stage of the competition, but that hardly mattered. Cape Verde had arrived.
This week, the Blue Sharks, as they’re known, stand on yet another precipice, and one doubly as spectacular. After an up-and-down World Cup qualifying campaign featuring surprise victories, unexpected losses, and the odd ineligible player, the team defeated Tunisia 0-2 (away from home!) to reach the African Play-offs. A win in their next match will ensure a World Cup debut in Brazil 2014 for a nation with no grass pitches and a population of less than 500,000. Whichever way it’s spun, that’s some story.
Nigeria and Ghana, Cape Verde’s more illustrious neighbours, have also had good weeks, even if their victories were altogether more expected. Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria breezed past 10-man Malawi to top their group and proceed to the play-offs, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses with the goals. Ghana faced a much tougher task, needing a point against 2010 CAN winners Zambia to progress. In the end, it was a relatively comfortable 2-1 win, but the match was marred by a controversial build-up in which Zambia were forced (or so they claim) to train in the stadium car park, of which more later.
What all of these ties shared, though, quality of football aside, was the fans’ fervour. Almost every club and every country has at one time or another claimed for itself the unprovable, arbitrary, ridiculous title of ‘Best Fans In The World,’ but the passion for football in West Africa is rarely matched.
What gives football its meaning in England is largely its representative capacity: fans rally around a club, of their city, of their class, seeing the team and the institution as a projection, in many ways, of themselves. This is almost always a regional, not national, phenomenon. Since England was the coloniser rather than the colonised, national representation through football was largely unnecessary. Even today, very few English people identify with the national team. We’ll support them, sure, but we don’t see ourselves in them (thank God).
In West Africa, however, the cultural and historical milieu is reversed. Football is still representative, sometimes tribal, but the focus of that representation shifts. Football was brought to countries like Cape Verde and Ghana, after all, when they weren’t ‘countries,’ but were essentially fiefdoms of the Portuguese and British, respectively. It was new. But God was it popular.
That this growth coincided with the growth of national independence and anti-colonial movements changed everything. African football and African nationalism were brothers—twins, even—growing up together. The national team thus became the focal point for, firstly, ‘normal’ Africans, but also for leaders like the aforementioned Amílcar Cabral, who recognised in football a revolutionary potential. In the absence of an established league system, and in the presence of a burgeoning national identity, the African passion for international football was born. As we shall see, it was to be central to nation building and the consolidation of pan-African solidarity.
Nowhere was this more evident than the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Both before and after independence, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President, set about using football as a weapon against the colonial powers. Football in Ghana would be independent, like the nation itself; indeed, it would help build that nation. In the words of the sports sociologist Dr Paul Darby, it was seen as ‘invaluable in building a sense of Ghanainness that [the government] felt would transcend all divisions.’
During the 1957 independence celebrations, football was placed front and centre. Sir Stanley Matthews was invited to play in a number of high-profile friendly matches for Accra club Hearts of Oak and was given the title of Soccerthene, meaning ‘King of Soccer,’ by Nkrumah’s administration. (It wasn’t the first time African football had expressed its admiration for Matthews—the Sierra Leone club Socro United renamed itself Mighty Blackpool FC in his honour—nor was it the first time Matthews had reciprocated that affection: the England winger toured Africa every summer for 20 years after his retirement, and even set up an all black team in Soweto, South Africa during the apartheid years.) More important, though, were the exploits of the Ghanaian national team.
The Ghana Football Association (GAFA) had set up, with Nkrumah’s express permission, exhibition matches against some of Europe’s premier club and international sides. Between 1958 and 1962, Ghana played against, either at home or abroad, Austria Vienna, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Blackpool, Dynamo and Locomotiv Moscow, West Germany, Real Madrid, and Italy. The latter two matches, against the then European Champions and the then two-time World Cup winners, respectively, were particularly notable. Against Real Madrid, Ghana managed a draw, and against Italy (in Italy), a scarcely believable 2-5 win.
Their performances in competitive cup competitions were even more impressive, and owed much to Nkrumah’s influence. The President personally appointed Charles Gyamfi, the first African footballer to play in Germany, as national coach. That the coach was Ghanaian was crucial; in colonial times, and even at the time of Gyamfi’s appointment, football coaches were always white, never African. This was a political move, a nod to Ghanaian independence. And under him, the team went on to dominate the continent. In 1963, Ghana hosted and won the CAN. They won it again two years later, the players starring, Gyamfi excelling in his new role, and Nkrumah always somewhere in the not too distant background. In fact, the players had direct access to the President. Centre forward Wilberforce Mfum recalled how ‘I could always go to him without even making an appointment,’ and houses were given to the squad for winning in 1965. Football was being politicised by Nkrumah, and not without good reason: besides the economic prosperity enjoyed by Ghana post-independence, the sport was about as potent a symbol of national achievement as could be found.
More than narrow nationalism, though, Nkrumah’s political philosophy was ultimately one of pan-Africanism and African solidarity. Independence from the colonisers would have to come first, naturally, but thereafter, continental unity was to be sought. As he outlined in one famous speech, ‘Independence now, tomorrow the United States of Africa.’ And, in another, ‘The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the whole continent of Africa!’ The national team was again Nkrumah’s chosen outlet for the expression of his pan-African ideology. He chose to nickname them the Black Stars, both in homage to the great pan-African pioneer Marcus Garvey and to symbolise their role in fostering black, i.e. African, pride. Benjamin Koufie, a former player and manager with the Black Stars, told of how ‘Nkrumah was telling the whole world that there is a continent called Africa which could compete with any other continent in the game of football.’
If African football was to compete, thought Nkrumah, it must however act in concord. One tournament summed that belief up more than any other: the aptly named Kwame Nkrumah Gold Cup. It was a competition between West African national teams, but ‘competition’itself was perhaps the least important thing about it. Rather, it was an enterprise to strengthen the ties between West African nations. One Ghanaian football administrator told fans that they should ditch their petty prejudices and support ‘all the visiting teams as brothers.’ Nkrumah himself, in the aftermath of the 1960 final (a 6-2 win for Ghana against Sierra Leone in the Independence Stadium (again, note the name), Accra), said that the tournament was special ‘not for its intrinsic value, but rather because it is symbolic of the sound foundation upon which we can build the unity of West Africa and of the great value I attach to the success of this movement.’
And there were successes. Take the African boycott of the 1966 World Cup, a pan-African response to the overwhelmingly Eurocentric FIFA, which led to the guaranteed inclusion of at least one African team in World Cups starting from 1970. Victories were hard fought, and, as we shall see later, by no means total, but Nkrumah’s pan-African politicisation of the game was tangible and it was good for the continent. Like his heroes, Garvey and the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James (another who saw sport—in his case cricket—and politics as indivisible), Kwame Nkrumah was a true pioneer.
As the successful boycott shows, however, Nkrumah wasn’t the only African leader who thought in these terms. Which brings us, after a major diversion, back to the West African nations we spoke of earlier, who this week won their final World Cup qualifying group games: the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde and the Super Eagles of Nigeria. For these countries, too, were guided towards independence by anti-imperial, pan-African leaders who recognised football as a means of strengthening their nation and continent. In the case of the former, this was Amílcar Cabral; in the latter, it was Nnamdi Azikiwe, or ‘Zik.’
Azikiwe had long been a proponent of government intervention in sport. As early as 1938, he formed Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC), a Lagos-based sports club that, like Nkrumah’s sporting ventures, sought to demonstrate that Africans had the ability to manage and organise their own affairs. Such actions continued into wartime, with Zik conducting two football tours, in 1941 and 1943, to mobilise support for Nigerian independence. Almost 20 years later, when he became the country’s first president, it was a theme to which he would return. Just as there was an Nkrumah Cup, so too would there be an Azikiwe Cup, consisting of annual matches between Nigeria and Ghana. Like his comrade, he saw football as being able to play a part in the reclamation of African sovereignty from the imperialists. That the home of Nigerian football team Enugu Rangers was renovated in 1986 and renamed the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in his honour was an appropriate, if tiny, gesture.
Amílcar Cabral was different. Whereas Nkrumah and Zik went on to become their nation’s first President, Cabral was assassinated before the liberation of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau could be achieved. He was a leader and a pan-Africanist theorist, yes, but he was also a guerrilla: the driving force behind a decade-long liberation struggle. With regards football, Cabral was different, too. Nkrumah and Zik, as we have seen, co-opted football once in positions of power to further their nationalist and pan-African agenda, and they did it with great success. Cabral, however, was a genuine football fan. As a young agronomy student in Lisbon, he excelled at football. Upon graduation, he was even offered the chance to play for Portuguese titans Boavista and Benfica. Manuel Alegre, the Portuguese poet and politician and then a member of the anti-imperialist Portuguese Communist Party, recalled recently that Cabral’s ‘greatest wish’ was at one time to take up Benfica’s offer, but that the necessity of armed struggle had led him to refuse. The world should be grateful that he did.
Nevertheless, Cabral did leave his mark on West African football. In our introduction we recalled Cape Verde’s first ever competitive tournament victory: they were the 2000 Amílcar Cabral Cup winners. The competition, again an all-West African affair, serves as a reminder of those liberation struggles fought by Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Cabral, and others; that football on the continent owes as much to these men as it does to any player. For without independence, what would football in Africa look like?
This is not to say that all ran smooth after the chains of colonialism were broken. Just as there were benefits to come from the period’s politicisation of the sport, so too were there drawbacks and failures. In Ghana, particularly, Nkrumah’s interference couldn’t ultimately curb the inevitable tribalism that comes with competition. Pan-African sentiments were expressed, and strengthened, through football, but Ghanaian supporters remained hostile to rival teams. This was hardly Nkrumah’s vision for an independent Ghana. In a study of the rivalry between Ghanaian football clubs Hearts of Oak and Kotoko, Kevin Fridy and Victor Brobbey found that fans of each club were divided along ethnic and political lines that remained even in the post-colonial nation state: Hearts of Oak fans tended to be for one political party, the centre-left National Democratic Congress, and Kotoko fans another, the centre-right New Patriotic Party.
In fact, Nkrumah might be said to have worsened the problem of club tribalism during his time in office, with the football club he established, the Real Republikans, being seen as the party of the establishment rather than the people. As Darby notes, ‘What appears to be forgotten from Nkrumah’s experiences with football… is the capacity of the game to generate unpredictable emotional attachments and counter-hegemonic currents that can breed disunity and threaten those in power.’ Furthermore, because of the personal investment Nkrumah made in football, there was left a vacuum upon his deposition by military coup. Ghanaian football, so dominant in the first part of the 1960s, was to fall into disarray.
Thus we see the dangers of politicisation. So long as those carrying out the process are of moral integrity and are pursuing a ‘noble cause,’ the pros outweigh the cons. Nkrumah, however, showed how much could be achieved by co-opting one of Africa’s premier cultural expressions; others took that lesson, but applied it in an altogether more sinister manner. The chief culprit here was Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator and kleptocrat.
Contrary to his predecessors, Mobutu invested heavily in the Zaire national team solely for his own benefit, capitalising on the Leopards’ success to shore up his own position and to nurture his nascent cult of personality. (The Leopards, incidentally, was a nickname chosen by Mobutu to correspond with his trademark leopard skin hat, in sharp contrast to Nkrumah’s symbolic Black Stars.) When Zaire failed so miserably in the 1974 World Cup, it must partly have been down to the threats made to the players before and after games. One infamous moment saw defender Mwepu Ilunga break from the wall to boot the ball downfield before a Brazilian free kick could be taken. The borderline racist ‘hilarity’ that came afterwards—‘Look at that African! Doesn’t he know the rules of our game?—obscured the real explanation: that is, Ilunga and the rest of the Zaire squad were terrified.
Nor can we say that African football has freed itself from all colonial remnants. How could it? African nations still lose players to their former colonisers. Danny Welbeck and Gabriel Agbonlahor (the latter in the news this week, bizarrely, for injuring a member of the boyband One Direction during a charity match and subsequently making him vomit in front of thousands of his adoring fans) were eligible to play for Ghana and Nigeria, respectively. Both opted for England. Bruma, one of the most promising names in world football, will play for Portugal, despite his being born in Amílcar Cabral’s country, Guinea-Bissau. Belgium’s golden generation is built largely on Congolese talent: Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku—to name but a few. And imagine if Zizou had turned out for Algeria, or Vieira for Senegal! (Again, one could name many, many more.) European clubs, meanwhile, still treat African clubs as if they own them, dodgy agents and representatives hoovering up premium talent at bargain basement prices.
Now firmly back in the present day, let’s return to a tie we mentioned long ago: last week’s World Cup qualifier between Ghana and Zambia. Here was tribalism personified: the Zambian government offered a $10,000 bonus to each and every player should they defeat Ghana; players trash-talked one another right up until kick off; and Zambia trained in a stadium car park on the eve of the match having been locked out of the premises. On the face of it, this was Nkrumah’s worst nightmare. Where had the pan-African spirit gone?
Ultimately, of course, the relationship between competitive sport and pan-Africanism was bound to be somewhat paradoxical; one is predicated on superiority, the other on unity. This doesn’t mean that the two are incompatible, however. Difficulties are had, as with the game between Ghana and Zambia, when sport trumps solidarity. But when the two work in tandem, as with the Nkrumah Gold Cup, or with the 1966 World Cup Boycott, football can serve justice in a way that few other cultural forms can. And though much has been made here of the role of leaders (if not elites), that’s essentially because football is still the sport of the masses.
Football is political. African football, doubly so. And the passion that springs from that added politicisation is what makes spectacles like Ghana vs Zambia so precious. Nothing contradictory about that.
2010, and the World Cup has come to Africa. South Africa are the hosts, Ghana the continent’s great hope. The Black Stars reach the quarter finals, where they face Uruguay, twice tournament winners, and are cheated out of a semi final place. Luis Suárez handballs on the line to deny Dominic Adiyiah a last minute winner. Ghana are eliminated. The posters supporting the team, however, decorated with slogans like ‘Bravo Black Stars, Heroes of Africa’ and ‘Ghana, Africa, One Love,’ remain in place. All of Africa mourns their exit, and South Africans even take to calling the team ‘BaGhana BaGhana,’ after their own nickname, Bafana Bafana.
February, 2013, and Nigeria win their third CAN title after a Sunday Mba goal powers them past surprise package Burkina Faso. A young team, unfancied before the tournament kicks off, their victory is a source of delight to their compatriots. Manager Stephen Keshi becomes the first black coach to win the title in 21 years, and says afterwards that ‘Winning this is mainly for my nation. When I came on board a year and a half ago my dream was to make all Nigerians happy, and to construct a great Nigerian team.’ But he also singles out the up and coming Confederations Cup, at which his team will play for the continent. ‘To represent Africa in Brazil,’ he says, ‘is an honour for Nigeria.’
Seven months later, and the joy is all Cape Verde’s. After their stunning win away at Tunisia sends them to within 180 minutes of World Cup qualification, the Blue Sharks coach, the air-traffic controller, rightly heaps praise upon his group of players. Tellingly, he points to their extraordinary ‘humility,’ and pays tribute to the ‘respect’ with which they viewed their North African opponents.
The giants of West African liberation are now long gone, but what they fought for lives on. For proof, well, just look to football.
I cannot imagine a better means of preparing the way for unity than by Africans from all parts of the continent joining hands in an atmosphere of brotherhood in the arena of sports. Kwame Nkrumah
My stiffest earthly assignment is ended and my major life’s work is done. My country is now free and I have been honoured to be its first indigenous head of state. What more could one desire in life? Nnamdi ‘Zik’ Azikiwe
If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight. Amílcar Cabral
* * *
On foreigners, coming over here, taking our jobs.
Would write something a wee bit more substantial, but, really, what’s there to say apart from:
'STOP THE XENOPHOBIA, GREG,'
'England were shite long before Newcastle brought in a dozen French players,'
'Your dog-whistle football politics will get us nowhere'?