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A Journey Through African Football Part II: A False Renaissance
In part two of three, KingFut’s journey through African football chronicles the brief optimism that ensued after independence. Yet it would quickly dissipate by cause of African doing and the changes that took place around the world. Thus, a false renaissance. Enjoy the read and be sure to leave your comments below.
Between 1934 and 1966, Egypt was the only African country to have made it to the FIFA World Cup. This had been contributed to by two factors: first was Egypt’s preeminence as Africa’s oldest football nation and second was the perverse notion of African inferiority that was creeping onto the post-colonial era. In the aforementioned period, Africa (and Asia) had one qualification spot; which was to be earned via a playoff against a European side. Like Apartheid, Africa was not willing to accommodate ideas of racial bias in its football.
This was a period of Pan-African ideology, an immediate backlash to imperialism, and football would offer one of its peak moments. The 1966 World Cup is remembered as England’s time, its “wingless wonders” team perpetually idolized by English media for winning the Jules Rimet trophy. In Africa, it is a reminder of the old adage, now reduced to platitude, ‘Unity is Strength’. African nations chose to boycott this World Cup and although at that moment it didn’t ruffle any feathers, its ramifications would be considerable. Knighted, Sir Stanely Rous not only showed disinterest to African cries for a fair chance towards World Cup qualification but he also was sympathetic to Apartheid arguments. Fittingly, these would be the main causes for his fall from FIFA Presidency, losing to Joao Havelange in 1974. Consequently, Africa would have a direct qualification spot for the World Cup; never again has Africa stood in such consolidation for a cause. Intertwine of political motive and football had worked.
Political motive had also brought to existence the African Cup of Champions Club, today the CAF Champions League. Nkrumah, who had launched his Real Republikan project at home, financed this new tournament as an imitation to the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. Things were good; domestic leagues were vibrant, there was fierce allegiance to local teams and African countries were free.
Yet this brief renaissance had already begun to crumble. On January 17th, 1961 Patrice Lumumba, another Pan-Africanist, was heinously murdered after having been overthrown from a brief tenure in office as Prime Minister of the DRC. His killers, Western imperialists, installed an authoritarian cohort in the brief chaos that ensued; one who would safeguard their exploitation of resources in this country, Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was impressed by Nkrumah’s use of football to further political agenda and he immediately took to a similar task with Zaire. He invested heavily in football, from bringing in Pele’s legendary Santos team to scouting for coaches from, then a football power, Hungary. He oversaw Zaire’s success at the African Cup of Nations in 1968 and also become the first black African team at the World Cup in 1974. The team’s horrible performances would be as memorable as their leopard imprinted jerseys. Unfortunately, that would be the end of Zaire’s government association with the team. There was no welcome-back party at the airport and most of the players were left to languish in poverty. Mobutu continued to rule for 32 years; enjoying meetings with icons like Richard Nixon and even sitting in the British Queen’s royal carriage. Political motive and football had become toxic.
Deeper roots of linkage between politics and football exist in North Africa. Western-backed despots, famed for their so called secularity, have long held tight control on their respective country’s societal atmosphere. This is borne from the irrational fear of Islamism; which coincided with the West’s loss of the communist enemy. In Egypt, for instance, Anwar Sadat’s Infitah which traded USSR’s partnership for USA’s served contradictory purposes. It instituted military-led state capitalism and cronyism, in place of ambitions for social equality and nationalization of land and industry, in its quests to draw in private investments. It also paved way for entry of company football teams and entrenchment of government football teams in Egypt’s football structure whilst leaving community clubs at the mercy of government funding. The era of liberalization had come as Soviet power waned; football as every facet of African society would face adverse consequences.
One of the consequences of liberalization was the commercialization of football. This, like football itself, had its roots in England. In 1992, the newly-formed English Premier League sold TV rights to BSkyB in a 5-year contract worth £304 billion. This was the model set that would be copied by Europe. But what does this have to do with Africa? Suddenly, Africans were introduced to superior quality football on their TV sets and in droves they abandoned the stadia of their home countries. The heydays of domestic football in the 1970s and 1980s, as seen in Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya as examples, were gone. New generations were being born in a continent with no fervor for domestic rivalries and bar North Africa and select Sub-Saharan countries, many fans have no idea how the CAF Champions League trophy looks like. South African firm Multichoice facilitated the spread of European “glamour” football in Anglophone Africa while, expectedly, French firms took up the mantle in francophone afrique.
Football had become an instrument for financial gain; commoditized as required of everything in neo-liberalism. FIFA had changed from a non-profit organization to a vicious Multinational Corporation. Even CAF got lured into this; Pan-Africanism has long since been dead. The African Cup of Nations and CAF Champions League which had for long been available for public broadcasters to offer free viewing were now up for sale, leading to circumstances of Africans being threatened with block-out from their own football as is seen in parts of West Africa during the 2006 African Cup of Nations. In fact, even today viewing of the CAF Champions League in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa under Multichoice hegemony is intermittent and highly unreliable. Take the simple fact that since 1997 when the CAF Champions League was formed as a poor copy of European club football elitism, five clubs (Raja Casablanca, Esperance, Enyimba, TP Mazembe and Al Ahly) have won 13 of 17 competitions. In contrast, there were 21 different winners between 1964 and 1996. Esperance and Ahly are uncomfortable hegemonies in their respective countries while Enyimba and Mazembe are myths bankrolled by wealthy patrons.
Monetization of football in Africa killed off the use of football teams as tools to combat social concerns as seen in the struggles of MYSA in Kenya. Instead, due to lack of a recent history of coherent organization among peoples (socios) or even sophistication in financial sector (joint-stock), football clubs resorted to “Patron-Client” relationships to survive. Relying on “big men” to finance them and keep clubs alive. Think of Slim Riahi, Motsepe, Motaung, etc. This extended to National Associations- conditions which naturally morphed to institute corruption as these individuals, and their cliques, are accountable to nobody in football circles. This siphoning of money from football by the private sector leaves governments with the responsibility to improve things but they really cannot.
African governments were in deep financial constraints entering the 1980’s as a consequence of the oil crises of the 1970’s. The only way out was loans from Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These loans were conditional and thus ended African freedom of action and in effect their independence. In summary, the conditions called for neoliberal policies in African countries. The government-funded sports programs disappeared in the wake for calls to cut government spending. Their vacuum would be taken up by football academies; the fatal final blow for African football.
European clubs like Arsenal FC are famed for their operational structures. Yet Arsenal are heavily-dependent on a network of youth football academies, including those in Africa. These academies play the role of brain drain. Due to romanticization of playing in Europe, the local scene has been left to whither such as one of Africa’s great clubs Asante Kotoko. Young footballers are presented images of those who have successfully made it while the reality of them being microscopic few goes unmentioned. Investments are made by poor families into these football academies to earn their sons and daughters a chance to Europe. But the academies, which have a low turnover of their intended goal, neglect the academic development of these young Africans. So in the quest to put five Africans on a plane to Arsenal, 100 will forfeit the chance for secondary education in effect compounding the social problems in Africa.
Moreover, due to this desperation to be shaped as footballers by European bias some of the African footballers enter a quagmire of problems. From falling prey to unscrupulous agents to becoming illegal immigrants in their folly attempts to play in Europe. This web of European football clubs, agents, young African footballers and academies became so adverse that FIFA banned the tying of U-18 footballers to contracts. FIFA president, Sepp Blatter went as far ahead as to call it, “neocolonialism”.
It’s not possible to exhaust the consequences and causes of the stagnation in African football in a brief piece. But it must be remembered that football is not a stand-alone feature it morphs with the changes in society; as seen in its early political intents to today’s economic importance. This outlook has been bleak; is there any silver lining? Does the future hold better? These and more in the final part of ‘A Journey Through African Football’.