A tale of two games: How football and politics flirt in Africa

Goal delves into the history behind the cunning affair between the dirty and beautiful games in Africa and why they would continue to be strange bedfellows
By Nana Frimpong

There are two games certain to fascinate the ordinary African's senses any day: Politics the dirty one, and Football the beautiful one. Strikingly dissimilar as the two seem, however, there have been instances in the continent's history where they have been married to contrasting effect.

Goal assesses the varying facets of this most unlikely relationship, specifically highlighting the instances where football has had its strings pulled by its odd bedfellow.

When Mobutu Sese Seko and Kwame Nkrumah were at the peak of their powers in Zaire (now DR Congo) and
"Mobutu built Englebert into a symbol of national pride so admirable even his most avowed critics could not loathe."
Ghana respectively, football played significant roles in their maintaining a firm grip on the reins of government in politically fragile states. For Mobutu, TP Englebert - now rechristened TP Mazembe - was that instrument. The journalist-turned-military leader invested heavily into Englebert and ushered them into their first truly successful era, one that saw them make the final of Africa's premier club competition four times in a row and claiming the trophy twice.

Mobutu built Englebert into a symbol of national pride so admirable even his most avowed critics could not loathe. The successes of Englebert did translate to the fortunes of the national team itself, as Zaire won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974 and became the first sub-Saharan nation to play at the Fifa World Cup in the latter year. For good measure, Mobutu bought out the contracts of all Zairean footballers playing in Belgium so they could return to play in their homeland and also re-branded the national side as 'The Leopards', a glowing tribute to his trademark leopard-skin hat.

Not long before, Nkrumah, the famous pan-Africanist, had achieved similar ends with the club he formed in Ghana, the Real Republikans, also known as Osagyefo's Own Club (OOC) - Osagyefo being Nkrumah’s popular moniker. Ever the socialist, Nkrumah sought, in accordance with his policies, to establish a club that belonged to the state - an unprecedented concept at the time in these parts - which he stocked with players cherry-picked from other Ghanaian football clubs at the time. Needless to say, when Mobutu and Nkrumah eventually went down, they took Englebert's might and OOC's existence respectively along with them.
There was a reason why Zambia’s national team was known as 'KK 11' for most of its formative years. In fact, for the first 27 years of its post-independence existence (1964-1991), the team was known by the initials of the country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who practically adopted the side. The name indeed stuck till Kaunda’s reign ended and Zambia began to practise multiparty democracy after which the current nickname, the Chipolopolo, was assumed.
When South Africa hosted and won the Nations Cup in 1996, the new apartheid-free country had been only two years old and was struggling to rid itself of the final vestiges of racial segregation. The three-week period that saw coach Clive Barker inspire a mixed race team to glory and the sight of Nelson Mandela handing the Cup of Nations trophy to then Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey did plenty to stabilise a yet fragmented society, and thus consummate South Africa's birthright to nationhood. Madiba couldn't have been more grateful.
While South Africa were romping to success at CAN 1996, Nigeria - winners from the previous championship - missed the party courtesy a politically motivated decision by Sani Abacha, the country's dictatorial leader at the time. Diplomatic relations between the two continental giants had soured over the years. Mandela had criticised Abacha's regime for the brutal execution of Ogoniland activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others and even requested sanctions against Nigeria as a consequence. Quite reasonably, Abacha appeared not too enthused and refused to permit his team the opportunity to honour their part at the Nations Cup as a means of getting one over Mandela. As an excuse, he stated security fears, but that did not stop Caf from handing Nigeria a ban that barred the Green Eagles from featuring at the next edition in Burkina Faso. Abacha would not mind, though; in a mighty game of political chess, he had used his country's national team to make a resounding point – Checkmate.
Roger Milla played a starring role in Cameroon's dazzling run to the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup, but he very nearly did not. When Cameroon qualified for the Mundial, Milla had been retired from international football, and was perhaps even preparing to watch his country's exploits on television. Then he received a call from Cameroonian president Paul Biya. Biya asked Milla if he would like to feature at the tournament. The player obliged, of course, and the rest is history.

Football and politics have been odd bedfellows in Africa, and would continue to remain so and no wonder sometimes the fans court popular retired players to transmogrify as politicians – George Weah of Liberia
A little over two decades later, Biya - still president of the central African country - was at his intervening best again, this time persuading Samuel Eto'o to emerge out of his self-imposed international exile to help the Indomitable Lions overcome a first leg 2-0 deficit against Cape Verde in a 2013 Afcon qualifier. Sadly, Biya's efforts failed to pay off this time, as the Blue Sharks still went through.

Ghana have been no strangers to timely and beneficial presidential interventions themselves, especially in recent times. Only last month, sitting Ghanaian president John Mahama invited Andre and Jordan Ayew - the two sons of Ghana legend Abedi Ayew who had been estranged from the Black Stars for a while - to Ghana's seat of government and ultimately succeeded in convincing them to revoke a collective decision that saw them go on temporary retirement, just in time for the pair to help out with what remains of Ghana’s 2014 World Cup qualification campaign if recalled. A few days later, he did same with Michael Essien, and it appears the Chelsea midfielder has heeded and would soon call off his own sabbatical.
Several years after the demise of Mobutu, Mazembe have found another patron in current governor of the Congo's Katanga province, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, who has generously provided the funds and resources to fuel their latest streak of successes.

Nigerian outfit Enyimba, much like The Ravens, have found a willing benefactor in the last decade in the person of former governor of the west African nation’s Abia state, Orji Uzor Kalu, on whose fiscal assistance the People’s Elephant has risen from minnows to continental giants.

Elsewhere, Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, an avid football observer and known fan of England’s Arsenal, has personally sponsored the Cecafa Cup - a competition for east and central African sides - since 2002, thus prompting a change of the event’s name to the Kagame Inter-club Cup.

In an earlier era, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and his close ally Sekou Toure of Guinea donated sums to the organisation of the inaugural editions of what is known today as the Caf Champions League, and their names to the trophies that went with them. Nkrumah particularly saw football - a common passion across the continent - as key to realising the dream of a united Africa he so vigorously championed.

On March 5 1982, deposed Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddhafi took all of two hours to deliver a speech at the opening ceremony of the Nations Cup hosted by his country that year, most of which was used to propagate to his audience the virtues of the political idealogy he led, popularly known as the 'Green revolution'.

Football and politics have been odd bedfellows in Africa, and would continue to remain so and no wonder sometimes the fans court popular retired players to transmogrify as politicians – Cue: George Weah of Liberia.

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