As expected, no African team progresses passed the quarter final stage in this year’s world cup. Interestingly, even some women in my local grocery market had predicted so. One day as the world cup was going on, a 46 year old mother of an aspiring footballer told me, “we all support fellow Africans but they can’t win because we are poor and the people in charge keep fighting, all I want is my son to play in Europe and lift me out of this daily hustle’.
The only countries outside Europe that have won the world cup are Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. All the three are ‘developing countries’. So why are African countries with relatively similar social economic conditions fail to progress and win the world cup? Perhaps poor leadership is one of the main reasons.
Just like many African countries, football is the most popular sport in Brazil and the best players in both Brazil and Africa come from poor backgrounds. Brazil comes from a relatively similar sad background of oppression as most African countries, but Brazil has won the World Cup a record five times while no African country has progressed past the quarterfinal stage. Brazil experienced Slavery and from the 1930s, the country’s great skill and passion for football became a source of national pride. Many children growing up in impoverished shanty towns-favelas- see football as the only way to escape a life of hardship. Unlike many African countries, Brazil has experienced stable political leadership that has provided an environment for the poor to escape poverty through football.
Poor political leadership has led to slow economic growth in many countries in Africa hence hindering investment in football. Before 1960, the GDP per capita in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina was fairly the same with many African countries. According to the World Bank, the GDP per capita between 1960 and 2012 averaged at US $ 686.17 in Nigeria and US $ 3753.36 in Brazil during the same period. By 2012, Nigeria had a population of 168.8 million & GDP of 459.6 billion and Brazil 198.7 million & GDP of 2.253 trillion. Between 1960 and 2012, GDP per capita averaged US $ 428.94 in Ghana and US $ 7088.37 in Argentina. Clearly, there seem to be a correlation between steady economic growth and performance in world cup for originally poor countries.
Poor leadership perpetuates corruption in football management. African footballers have repeatedly come into conflict with their own football authorities over poor leadership and corruption. Samuel Eto’o pointed out to Confederation of African Football “The only problem in Africa is our leaders, who do not respect us. Until we are respected, other (continents) will never have any consideration for us,” Eto’o was barred from the national team for instigating a boycott over unpaid bonuses two years ago. George Weah, the only African player to win World, European and African Footballer of the Year awards, agrees that the governing of the sport needs an overhaul. Some British media has accused the current Confederations of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou for taking bribes to influence television rights and to support Qatar’s bid for the 2022 world cup.
The build up to this year’s world cup witnessed how poor leadership had brought conflict between players and officials too. According to French sports daily L’Equipe, the reason the players of the Cameroonian National Football team had initially refused to travel to Brazil for the World Cup was due to a disagreement over bonuses. In Nigeria, according to Nigerian media, Premium Times, the players and officials of the Nigeria Football Federation, disagreed over money meant for the players, less than a week to Nigeria’s first match at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
Poor leadership has fuelled conflict in several countries in Africa and that has contributed to the poor performance at the World Cup. Some of the countries that have represented Africa at the world cup have experienced internal and cross border conflicts in the past decades. Fighting between Cameroon and Nigeria flared up over disputed oil-rich Bakassa Peninsula in 1994 to 1996. Nigeria has experienced several years of internal conflict due to resources in the Niger Delta region, military coupes, and now in Northern Nigeria due to religious differences and extremism. Algeria had civil war between 1991 and 2002 and Ivory Coast between 2002 and 2007. On the contrary, Brazil has not experienced internal or external conflict during the same period.
In some cases however, a country can perform well even when faced with unstable leadership and internal conflict. Argentina won the 1978 world cup under a military rule. On 24 March 1976, the Argentine armed forces overthrew the Government and for a period of almost seven years called the “Dirty War” the military dictatorship maintained a brutal régime.
Unlike many other continents, football is like a religion in Africa, a common phenomenon that unites the whole of Africa. Governments can enumerate the unity exhibited by ordinary Africans in football to remove barriers to free movement of people and goods, and create opportunities to reduce unemployment for youth. While many Africans know about Yaya Toure or Didier Drogba, few know that Ivory Coast is one of the largest producers of raw Cocoa- simply because the finished cocoa products they consume are imported from Europe.
As Nelson Mandela once stated “Sport has the power to change the world” and hence it is important for leadership in African countries to use the spirit of football to improve governance and bring economic development, that will in turn increase investments in schools that nurture talents. Well-managed countries also attract more investment into their economies that ultimately increases corporate sponsorships in sports.