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A Journey Through African Football: Origins and the Struggle Against Colonial Rule

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Posted on March 24, 2015
credit, Bart van Eljden

Credit: Bart van Eljden

Football is part and parcel of African identity but this has been forged under tumultuous circumstances. This is the first of KingFut’s three-part series that delves inside the love story between and football. Enjoy the read and be sure to leave your comments below.

The first documented match in Africa took place in Cape Town, 1862, between two whites-only teams composed of civil servants and soldiers. This was a year before codifying of the game’s rules in England and a few more than its introduction in the Americas. While today it’s a source of joy and a core part of African identity, football’s place in Africa’s past presents a much darker picture encompassing the loss of indigenous culture and the protracted struggle against colonial rule.

Football arrived to most of the world in the late 19th Century, first being adopted in port cities before gradually or rapidly extending into the interior. Mainly attributed to its spread is the hegemony that was Britain. The British formed the first clubs, codified the laws and played the first tournaments before letting the world share into this novel activity that was football. They spread it to continental Europe, famously through the Danubian School of football, before the whole continent partook in the role of spreading it via the imperialistic culture. It was in this manner that it found its way to Africa.

Europeans (settlers, missionaries and soldiers) were highly critical of universal cultural activities in Africa such as dancing; terming them pagan. So in their racial prejudice they systematically sought to do away with them and institute their own modus operandi which they thought of as the only mark of civilization. Football would be one of the replacements for African cultural practices. They established it in the curriculum and accompanied missionary work with it. Whereas the missionaries thought they should instill football in the African mindset to instill virtues like discipline and teamwork, Africans viewed the easily learnt game from the perspective of its similarity with African sport in terms of its requirement of competitiveness and athleticism. A fine example is Nigeria, where the game’s introduction is credited to Jamaican Presbyterians, who passed the baton to the colonial education system. Of course there were instances where Africans picked up the sport out of their own volition simply from observation, but a bias on this would be paramount to historic romanticism.

Unfortunately, football didn’t truly take deep roots in Africa (bar North Africa) until the post World War II period. The core reasons for this were the late arrival of European settler colonization, unlike in South America, and the settlers themselves. Expounding the former, tropical Africa was virtually inhabitable for Europeans mainly because of Malaria. This meant the colonization of Africa was largely exploitative; the Europeans only sought to get the most out of the place and thus did not put into place the governance structures that would have allowed a society of the time to prosper. There was no infrastructure or a raft of Europeans forming football clubs. Moreover, the turbulence of the time stymied football in Africa. The settlers, when they did come, acted as some hindrances to progression of the game in Africa. Football in Africa was mainly established away from settler colonies as the wealthy Europeans showed a preference towards ‘gentlemen sports’ such as cricket and rugby; these are still relatively popular in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Nothing offers a more lucid picture of the relation among settlers, Africans and football than South Africa, the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

credit, footballiscominghome.info

Credit: footballiscominghome.info

While South Africa was the first place the game was played, there would be an arduous battle just to allow Blacks and other people of colour to take part. For long the game was exclusively for whites and with the institutionalization of Apartheid, it seemed Africans had no chance. After the formation of the Pietermaritzburg County Football Club in 1879, the white South Africans would consolidate from the various town and county associations to form South Africa Football Association (SAFA), later renamed Football Association of South Africa (FASA), an organization affiliated to the Football Association (FA) and a member of FIFA. Nevertheless, for white South Africans football was, and still is, secondary to rugby so it was perplexing that the majority who were receptive to it were being blocked out. As the first signs of defiance against Apartheid, the blacks and other people of colour formed a multiracial association named South African Soccer Federation (SASF) in 1951 but FIFA sided with the racist FASA. FASA, though, found out that Africa would not stomach its racism and it was, rightly, excluded from the first African Cup of Nations in 1957 by CAF despite being a founder member. Its insistence that Apartheid laws be tolerated in its refusal to field a multiracial team was rejected. It should be noted that FIFA, and the West, tolerated Apartheid; this would decide the FIFA presidential election in 1976.

This callous style of British Colonization is also observed in Kenya. The colonial powers regionalized ethnic groups as an act of divide and conquer and played a role in the non-existence of a football culture amongst Kenya’s biggest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Being the main driver of the Mau Mau rebellion (1951-1954), the Kikuyu were rounded up in massive numbers and denied enjoyment of European pleasures such as football which mainly happened in urban centres. This allowed the periphery of Kenya, the two coasts, to be the sprouting grounds of football culture in Kenya but yet destroyed the country in creating the Kikuyu mentality of “us against the rest” which has played itself repetitively in voting tallies. Kikuyu’s bitterness against colonial rule, having suffered most from the settler’s arrival, naturally drove them from accepting football on top of history playing along settler arrival in Africa equating to low football uptake. They therefore played little role in the first international match between African countries, Gossage Cup 1926, between Kenya and Uganda.

As earlier mentioned, football was spread by Europeans but there was a huge difference in how continental Europe and Britain did it. The British followed indirect rule policies and saw themselves as a civilization a step above the rest, only present to educate others. The former, meanwhile, deeply entrenched the association between colony and motherland through the policy of assimilation. Spain and Portugal did it successfully in the Americas and football became deeply accepted there while France shared a similar story in Francophone Africa. So whereas Britain spread it only because it was pronounced in its culture, France did it as a way of converting her colonial subjects into French men and women. This is seen in the success of Africans in the French league thanks to its settler community in the Maghreb and provinces of French West Africa. ‘Little Portugal’ copied this and unearthed one of the greats of all time, the late Eusebio.

The French connection helped institute football into Africa but the cloud of imperialism hung around- a reminder that the game couldn’t truly be African until they emancipated themselves from colonial subjugation.  ’s bloody struggle for independence is an inspiration not just about the liberties we enjoy as Africans but football’s role in earning Africans self-rule. It wasn’t just ; and Tanzania are other pronounced examples where football stood side by side with nationalism.

Equipe FLN

Credit: memoria.dz

With the heavily regulated political atmosphere in colonial Africa, only sports associations were left as a forum from which Africans would carve out their independence. In Algeria this had began playing out in 1921 when Moloudia Club of Alger was formed. It celebrated the Islamic heritage and even took up the significant colours red and green; this was a way to galvanize the people. Yet little would change until 1958. Mustapha Zitouni and Richad Mekhloufi ditched France just two months before the 1958 World Cup, plus eight other France-based Algerian footballers. This they did in order to join the liberation movement against French rule. Showing a lack of concern for the threat of a ten-year imprisonment for dissertation, as they served in the French military, they joined Equipe FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale); a team formed by, former footballer, Mohammed Boumezrag to act as the football team of the guerrilla movement, FLN. Incredibly, the liberation front was headed by yet another footballer, Ahmed Ben Bella, who rejected an Olympique Marseille contract and would later become Algeria’s first president. The team lasted between 1958 and 1962; it was quite successful but its endearing factor was how its games the Algerian flag and National Anthem as is customary in international football. Needless to say, FIFA did not accord it recognition thus its matches predominantly consisted of fixtures against Islamic states and Communist nations. The team was a precursor to the Desert Foxes and only died out upon independence.

Egypt too suffered from restricted political space, forcing Cairo students’ unions to seek a place of convergence. They found it in Al Ahly, Africa’s first football club founded in 1907, a name said to have been chosen by Amin Samy. Its first chairman was British though, Mitchell Ince; he was supportive of Egypt’s liberation struggles and helped the club acquire resources in the face of British hindrance. Al Ahly’s role didn’t end there; it also played a part in the country’s 1952 revolution thus becoming a role model for football teams in the Middle East.

In the same vein, Tanzania formed the first football clubs in East Africa (1930s); they assisted Tanzania’s liberation movement headed by Nyerere to raise money for trips to conduct agitations at the UN. The importance here is that Tanzania played a key role in the liberation of several African countries; Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, to name a few, making the idea that it owed a share of its freedom to football truly moving.

As the 1960s arrived Africa was becoming free to forge football in its own identity and this they did. Fascinating times had arrived indeed; this will be covered in the second part of this series.

2 Comments

  1. Taher

    November 25, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    Some misleading facts the first football in Affrica was Constantine in 1890s and then Merreikh in 1907

    • Robert Malit

      November 25, 2016 at 2:50 PM

      Al Merrikh was founded in 1908. As for CS Constantine, they were properly founded in 1926.
      Thank you for your observation.

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