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.
"Mobutu built Englebert into a symbol of national pride so admirable even his most avowed critics could not loathe."
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.
|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
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.
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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