Former UN Secretary-General, Kofi A. Annan is a keen football fan and on the eve of the world’s biggest sporting event starting in Africa for the first time, he shares his thoughts on who will win, how African teams, including his own Ghana, will perform and what it all means for Africa…
Are you excited about the World Cup?
I am really looking forward to it. I love football and watch it whenever I can. And the World Cup is simply the best – with the greatest players in the world competing against each other.
But as well as a fantastic tournament, it is even more powerful because it brings people together in a way which no other event does, uniting people within countries and across borders.
This year the World Cup is particularly special because it is taking place in Africa – the first truly global sporting event to be held on our continent.
The eyes of the world will be on Africa and I believe it can become a historic moment where we can all witness sport bridging gaps and helping overcome differences between nations and even continents.
I watched Ghana play in the last World Cup in Germany. I hope I will see them again in South Africa.
So Africans sees this as their tournament, not just a one country event?
Very much so. Africa is proud to be hosting the World Cup. That’s obvious when you visit countries with teams in the final 32. For countries like Ghana, my own, …..well….the whole nation will ground to a halt when they are playing.
But even in African countries which have not qualified, there is a huge fan base rooting for African teams.
How do you think the African teams will do?
I am very optimistic. For some time, Africa has produced some of the best players in the world. But what is different is that African teams have not just one or two stars but world class players in every position.
Ivory Coast, for example, doesn’t just have Didier Drogba but quality strikers, defenders and mid-field. They may be in one of the hardest groups but don’t write them off.
And if Ghana play to their potential, we should make it through to the later stages too.
Does this football success have any wider lessons?
Yes. The rise of Essien, Drogba, Eto’o – and a host of other stars playing in the best leagues in the world – underlines the rich talent waiting to be discovered in Africa.
And that’s applies not just to football, but in every field. What football shows is that if people get a lucky break, a chance to fulfill their potential, they score, they shine.
The benefits are tremendous, not just for individuals themselves but for young people generally and, of course, our wider society.
More ways are needed to support the young people of African countries to achieve their ambitions and exercise their skills. Everyone wins if we do.
Maybe another lesson is the value of openness and exchange. African and South American stars have improved by playing in Europe, and the European game has been enriched by them. African and Asian teams have improved by bringing in foreign coaches.
We all gain if we have open minds and hearts. This doesn’t just apply to football. Greater mutual understanding, and practical experience of seeing things from another perspective, can help the world address tough issues like migration, climate change and trade.
One more thing. For a month, the world will be fixated on football. There are actually more countries in FIFA than are members of the United Nations. Just imagine what we could achieve together if we could bring the same spirit of co-operation to meet the Millennium Development Goals, to fighting hunger, for example, and ensuring women play their full role in our communities.
What are your wider expectations for the tournament?
Great football, of course. I think it will be a highly successful tournament. I know how hard the South Africans have been working to ensure it runs smoothly and that everyone has a wonderful time.
I think it will be a surprise for those with preconceptions about Africa. The headlines don’t do justice to the way the continent has changed for the better. The 2006 World Cup changed perceptions of Germany in a very positive way. I think 2010 will do the same for Africa.
I hope the tournament will help show the world Africa’s diversity, talent and potential, without hiding the very real challenges it faces. It would be magnificent if some of the energy around football was channeled into efforts to work together, and help Africa in particular, to tackle global challenges like climate change, poverty and hunger.
You have teamed up with Didier Drogba to publish ‘Scoring for Africa’. What this about?
‘Scoring for Africa’ is an alternative guide to the World Cup prepared by the Africa Progress Panel, which I chair. The idea was to produce a guide with a development perspective that would carry the spirit of the World Cup beyond football and highlight some of the issues that unite and differentiate the countries represented. Didier is committed to development so it’s great to be doing this with him.
Who is your favourite player?
It seems unfair to pick out one. But I am from Ghana. Michael Essien would have been my choice and I am very sorry he is out.
Didier is my partner on the Alternative guide and just happens to be one of the finest players in the world. So if pressed, I would chose him.
Who do you think will win?
So many teams could lift the Trophy. The powerhouses of Europe and South America will be favourites again, but there will be plenty of upsets.
The gap between teams like Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina, who do well tournament after tournament, and the rest is narrowing. Spain look very strong. And sides will write off the African teams at their peril.
For more information please visit: www.kofiannanfoundation.org