Football: The power of the beautiful game

By Steve Bloomfield

Posted on May 31, 2010 12:37

Sport is highly-politicised on the continent but South Africa’s footballers ?and politicians hope that a successful World Cup can transform Africa’s image across the globe

Surviving the rule of one Mugabe is hard enough; Zimbabwe’s footballers have had to cope with a second. During the 1990s and the early part of this decade, while President Robert Mugabe was strengthening his grip on power and implementing a series of disastrous economic reforms, his nephew, Leo Mugabe, was having a similarly catastrophic effect on the country’s football team.

Football and politics are woven together all over the world but nowhere other than Africa are the two so closely intertwined. Governments are banned by world football body FIFA from interfering in the game but politicians tend to find a way around such restrictions. Top football officials are powerful figures in Africa, often having close links to ruling political parties. In some countries, football becomes a battleground for a proxy war between the government and the opposition.

Like his uncle, Leo, who was chairman of the Zimbabwe Football Association from 1993 to 2003, thinks he did “a wonderful job”. He rapidly lists his achievements: starting the country’s first junior leagues, introducing women’s football and, most importantly, qualifying for the African Cup of Nations for the first time.

But Leo’s time in power was also a period when many of the country’s best players fled to South Africa, corruption was rife and the national team ran out of money. On one occasion, the team was stuck at Johannesburg International Airport, unable to get their connecting flight to Bamako for an African Nations qualifier because Leo had not paid for the tickets. He called his uncle and the presidential plane was sent to South Africa to pick them up. “He was terrible,” says Sunday Chidzambwa, who coached the national team at the time. “I cannot describe how much I hate him. He destroyed football in Zimbabwe.”?

Sport makes bitter enemies

A former coach of the Kenyan national team is similarly vitriolic about the people who run the football association there. Francis Kimanzi, who took Kenya to its highest position in the FIFA world rankings and gave the team an outside chance of qualifying for the World Cup, was rewarded with a sacking. He had refused to take a second-string team to Egypt for an unimportant friendly match that he suspected had been organised for purely financial reasons. “They are crooks, pure crooks,” he says.

Kenyan football has been blighted by a succession of politically-backed officials. The current wrangles inside Kenya’s coalition government between President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement are being replicated in football, where the two main parties are backing the different factions that are competing for control of the football association.

Football has long been seen as a reliable route to political power in Kenya. The chairman of the Kenyan Football Federation in the 1970s, ?Kenneth Matiba, used his national profile to run for election against Daniel arap Moi in the country’s first multiparty elections in 1992. Several MPs elected in the most recent poll in 2007 had also been deeply involved in football administration, using the sport as a support base to further their political ambitions.

But just as the darker side of African politics is reflected in its football, so are the more positive elements. A football match helped ease the tensions toward the end of the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. In Somalia, the football team is one of the few things around which most Somalis can unite.

In South Africa, a rugby match is often highlighted as the moment when the new ‘Rainbow Nation’ came together. In front of a mainly-white crowd at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Nelson Mandela, wearing the green Springboks jersey, presented the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa’s captain, François Pienaar, after the team had beaten New Zealand. It became an iconic image: Mandela, the man who had led the African National Congress in the fight against apartheid, wearing the shirt which had come symbolise white rule.

But for most black South Africans, a far more important event took place a year later. The country was hosting football’s Africa Cup of Nations. It was the first tournament the team had competed in since the end of apartheid. As Bafana Bafana progressed through the rounds, fans started to believe that they might be able to win the tournament.In the rugby final, all but one of the 15 players were white. The football team, on the other hand, was more representative of South Africa: captain Neil Tovey is white, star striker Mark Williams is mixed race and some of the best players, like John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu, are black.

“I don’t like talking about colour,” Shoes said at a Johannesburg training ground last year, “but it was an important issue. The white team had won the year before. As the predominantly black team we felt under a lot of pressure to show that we could win too.”

Home advantage

Williams scored twice in the final against Tunisia and Mandela was once again on hand to present the trophy while wearing the home team’s kit. The importance of the victory was reflected in the nickname bestowed on Williams: ‘Nation Builder’.

South Africa does not have a chance of repeating that victory in this World Cup. But simply by hosting it – the first time an African country has been awarded the tournament – South Africa has a priceless opportunity. It has been a magical moment for the whole continent. A successful tournament will help to transform the image of Africa in a way that no act of government ever could.

For Danny Jordaan, the footballer-turned-politician who organised the event, the World Cup has a huge significance.”We want to explode the myth that there is a contradiction between being African and being world class,” says Jordaan. “And it is a myth,” he adds with a point of the finger.

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