African Nationalism and The World Cup

During World Cup season, billions of people around the world have a new dose of entertainment to take their minds off the horrors of widespread economic stagnation, environmental degradation, as well as lower economic prospects for the working class than ever before, it is almost as if there isn’t an ongoing war in eastern Europe…strange times. As sports create an ‘us versus them’ atmosphere, it is also a key tool for soft power, diplomacy, and nationalism. National identity is also fostered through sports, meaning flagship events like the World Cup in Qatar are key opportunities for countries to exhibit national values, and capacity.

It is in this context that African identity remains under strain, because of existing relations between African countries and other parts of the world. Just as the ongoing loss of intellectual and technical capacity is labeled brain drain, African countries also face a talent drain. African countries find themselves in the same position whereby natural resources end up serving the economies of colonial powers. On the matter of sports, it is no different because research has suggested that while the foreign sport of football unified many cultures, its initial application was as an instrument of colonial control. The interactions between African countries and their European counterparts especially in sports have been detrimental because many regulatory institutions have served to reinforce or maintain European dominance over the development of football in Africa.

Of the major European leagues in France, Spain, Germany, England, etc., it is players of African descent that make a decisive impact in many games. The talents displayed in the European club leagues are not reflected in African national and local teams because of a lack of infrastructure and other related technology. Talented African players end up seeking opportunities outside the continent not only for better pay and lifestyle but the training organizations and sports managers all facilitate the transfer of talent outside of the continent because just like migration, people will tend to move towards greater economic opportunities. For instance, Ousman Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé are of Senegalese and Cameroonian descent respectively, and at the same time are key players to the French national team, the point being that skilled players of African descent are representing France on the world stage, a country that has constantly played a role in the socioeconomic and political destabilization of many African countries. The same thing goes for countries like Germany, Spain, and Italy.

Football, while an imported sport to the African continent, quickly became one of the realms within which Africans sought to express and assert independence. With European ownership of stadia and equipment at the time, 1949 saw the establishment of an independent African football association in Zimbabwe which triggered a break from European regulation of the sport in Africa. The establishment of the Black Stars of Ghana, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, and the Nigerian Green Eagles were also reflections of newfound African pride following the wave of independence struggles of the late 19th century. It is important to note the connection between football, nationalism, and African identity following the post-colonial era.

In 2009, Ancestor Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe posed with the UAE world cup trophy and said “Britain does not have any gold, and neither does Germany… I am tempted to think that it came from Africa, and from Zimbabwe, and was taken away by adventurers and shaped into this cup…I should not let it go because this could be our gold.” This kind of political awareness is sorely lacking in the current discourse about African political and socio-economic liberation, especially in the fields of sports and entertainment.

In the struggle for African liberation, there must not be any compromise because it is just as demeaning to represent a country that has spelled the downfall of your indigenous origins. This perspective is lost on many because sports and other forms of entertainment are presented as apolitical and meant for only ‘enjoyment’. This then leaves out the sociocultural and developmental impacts of talent drain and conflicted identity. With the rise of political consciousness in Africa, the field of sports must not be ignored because countries with economic influence seek to use the soft-power dynamic, and therefore, African people must not take representation, national identity, and pride for granted, all for a chance at better economic opportunities. These are the same ways in which thoughtful musicians, artists, academics, etc. are bought off by ‘western’ institutions with the lure of progress (strictly monetary) while the nations of origin experience real losses.

We Africans must rid ourselves of our internal contradictions and ingrained capitalist values that teach us to place our individual advancement above the people. We become a hindrance to our own progress when we refuse to acknowledge the many ways imperialism and neocolonialism sabotage not just our sense of identity, but also our allegiance to our African roots. 

As revolutionary Pan-Africanists, we organize to liberate and unify our continent. We are fighting for our national liberation; therefore, national consciousness is a prerequisite. It is only when Africans, wherever they may be around the world understand that their destiny is tied to Africa that we will make a considerable leap forward in our struggle. The forces of imperialism know this, and that is why they do everything in their power to stamp that consciousness. As usual, political education is always at the forefront as a solution. We must teach our people about Africa because once they know their mother Africa, they cannot help but be proud to represent her. Africa is our home; Africa is our mother. And at all times, and under all circumstances, she must be primary.