Former athletes are using their fame and finances to enter Africa’s political arena. Can they improve the integrity of sport on the continent, asks Alnoor Amlani
This article was first published in the June 2018 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
As the 2018 Fifa World Cup gets ready to kick off in Russia (see also page 36), only five African nations (Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal) will be competing. Africa’s other football giants – Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria and South Africa (the host nation in 2010) – did not qualify.
African teams face numerous challenges at home due to poor governance and systematic institutional problems with administration. So while football has grown into a global billion-dollar industry, Africa remains on the periphery, despite the proliferation of African players across clubs in Europe.
After the Second World War, the sport became, at times, an embodiment of the political aspirations of the African people. In the 1960s, the beautiful game was seen as a medium for constructing a national identity for many newly independent African countries and for attaining recognition within the international community. Nelson Mandela famously used football matches to rally political support.
But these noble aspirations were overcome by other forces. Across the world, there is vote buying, match fixing and bribery of officials, as well as corrupt player transfers, sponsorship deals and even team selections. In Africa, there are also issues of nepotism, tribalism, regionalism and religion.
Fifa has consistently maintained a policy of non-interference within African football bodies. Although the organisation has recently endured its own problems with corruption and governance, the long-term absence of global enforcement has allowed corrupt practices to prevail in African football. The result is that African clubs have little presence and less competition on the continent, and aspiring African football stars look to make their careers elsewhere in the world.
The intersection of politics and sports is the core of the problem – but the route to a possible solution too. Few African leaders have harnessed the ability of sport to rally the people to good effect. Instead, perhaps threatened by the emergence of new leaders, they have suppressed sport, especially football, in the same way as they have suppressed the arts.
But this is changing. Sporting stars are now using the fame and finances they have gained on the global stage to enter local political arenas. For example, Kenya’s MP Wesley Korir is a marathon athlete who is also a politician, and the top political position in an African country was attained by a sportsman this year when Liberia elected former football star George Weah as its president. Weah’s fame as a striker for major clubs in Europe and the UK first brought him to the attention of his own people. Liberia, incidentally, is among the 41 members of the 54-nation Confederation of African Football that have never qualified for the World Cup.
As famous sportsmen and women of Africa accrue political power, they are gaining the opportunity to change the quality of sports administration in their countries and improve the integrity of sport across the continent.
Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent consultant based in East Africa
"Football is a billion-dollar industry but Africa remains on the periphery, despite the proliferation of its players in Europe"