Football,  International,  South Africa,  Terrorism

Football is part of the fabric of modern Africa; we mustn’t forget that in the face of terror

This is a cross-post from SCORE4africa

There is a peculiar double standard most Africans expect of media reporting about the continent. It is invariably treated as a country, not a vast continent of over fifty. The expectation is what happens in one part automatically applies everywhere else. So, famine in Ethiopia equals famine in Equatorial Guinea; a war in the Central African Republic must mean conflict in Burkina Faso; and an attack on a football team in Angola will automatically be repeated at the World Cup in South Africa. While the organisers cannot be complacent about the threat that exists, the Angolan province of Cabinda has been restive for the last 30 years; while there is absolutely no equivalent unrest in South Africa – a fact that is ignored in the recent hysteria.

There’s no doubt that the terrorist attack on the Togolese team by the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda at the African Cup of Nations has shaken African football to its core; though it has thankfully not derailed the whole tournament.

Football in Africa is almost a religion. It is the continent’s most popular sport – uniting rich and poor, north and south, Christian and Muslim. And the Cup of Nations is hardly just another football competition. Over the last three decades, the tournament has become a crucial arena for the pan-African ideal – in the breach not just the observance, as it were. In practical ways, it has knitted Africa and its people together much more than any political structure. The African Union is seen as an irrelevant talking shop by the vast majority of Africans. But their team doing well in the Cup of Nations is something they can take pride in. The tournament has driven the upgrade of infrastructure (even corrupt regimes want to present their best side to the international media at a big sporting event), as well as created jobs and economic opportunities in its host countries.

In Ghana 2008, we glimpsed a more self-assured and confident Africa. Not only was the football glorious – but the infrastructure, warmth, hospitality, and most crucially, peace, order and civic pride on display were an eye-opener for most viewers. The Cup of Nations, we suddenly realised, is the third most important international football tournament – after the World Cup and Euro championships – and now attracts major sponsorship from Orange, Samsung and Standard Bank, amongst others.

The reaction of clubs in the Premier League to the attack was fairly predictable. Many wanted their players to return from the ‘heart of darkness’. Of course, many clubs consider it to be a distraction – and, if not for FIFA rules which put country before club, would not release their players for it. Only Arsene Wenger has come out strongly and stated the blindingly obvious – terrorism is a fact of life in the modern world, and not continuing life as normal is to allow terrorists to shape how we live. Wenger, who has mentored several top African players (and won the 2008 SCORE4africa Mentoring Award), also seems to instinctively appreciate the debt many European leagues (especially the Premier League, with around 30% African players) owe Africa.

As most top African footballers leave to play abroad, they should be encouraged to contribute to their countries of origin. Most understand the power of football to transform lives in Africa. Didier Drogba recently contributed a £3 million fee to building a clinic in Cote D’Ivoire – something that speaks volumes about the social (and economic) impact that football and footballers can have in Africa.

Drogba and the entire Cote D’Ivoire team were recently honoured by SCORE4Africa for the role they played in ending the civil war in their country. At its height, every institution in the country, including the army and police had divided in two. The football team was the only truly national institution – so much so that the war was halted when they played a Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar in the northern ‘rebel’ part of the Country. As Africans increasingly only get to watch their stars on television playing in European leagues, the Cup of Nations is one of the few opportunities to see their heroes in the flesh.

Of course, the double standard is much more acute when it comes to hosting the World Cup in Africa. There are some who will continue to be naysayers about the possibility of Africans ever being able to organise anything efficiently. An insidiously racist point of view, if there ever was one. For instance, though London remains a major terrorist target, there are no calls to move the 2012 Olympics. All this despite the fact that South Africa has lots of experience organising international sporting events – the rugby World Cup, and most recently IPL cricket – moved due to security concerns in India last summer.

FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter – a big backer of African football – has strongly expressed his support and belief that both Angola and South Africa will rise to the challenge of holding safe sporting competitions.

The challenge now is to ensure that the money spent provides a legacy for all Africans. The investment in infrastructure (almost $4billion) and the economic opportunities – estimated at over $6billion – the World Cup will provide are huge. The tournament could serve as a springboard for making football a key driver of development in Africa. And, most importantly, it could herald the start of an economic renaissance in Africa around football – far more Africans could make a living from football.

This aspiration is one of the key objectives of SCORE4africa. We are working to develop the grassroots game and help more people in Africa make a living from football – whether through running viewing centres to watch European and local league matches; or small scale retail operations at these centres; or trading in football merchandise to the millions of football fans across the continent.

Football is intertwined in the fabric of modern Africa, with the ability to transform lives and livelihoods. While the Togo attack reminds us that we must redouble our security efforts, we mustn’t let the terrorists distract us from the wider potential of the beautiful game.

Onyekachi Wambu & Ayo Alli run the SCORE4africa Awards, which celebrates the power of football to transform lives in Africa.