For the first time since Africa’s participation in the football World Cup an African team from Morocco has got into the semi-final stage of the event.
As is to be expected, this development has caused quite a stir, exciting football followers who have adopted Morocco, the only African country still in the competition, across the continent.
With its close proximity to Europe, Morocco in a way presents an ambiguous identity. Racially and culturally, it identifies as an Arab nation but it is geographically one of the parts of Africa closest to Europe with Spain just across its border. But details such as these don’t bother supporters of African football.
For too long, the continent has played the part of the underdog in international competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics whose medal tables are often dominated by North American, Europeans and Asian countries like China that are now making their presence felt.
In spite of the fact that African footballers have for many years been important players in the major football leagues of Europe- Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain; in spite of the fact that football has widespread acceptance across Africa and African countries and players from Africa have featured in football tournaments for many decades, African countries in their individual capacities have been marginal players in world football. Should the fact that Morocco have made it through to this stage be indicative of African football rising? Not quite so.
African countries have individually made their mark in football. It is in football that Africa appears to have its greatest prospect as a leader in world sports. Not in tennis. Not in golf. Not gymnastics.
Granted that South Africa has made some showing in these mostly western sports but Africans who have excelled in them have been foreign-born.
With football, however, the story is different. Football is not only the most popular sport on the continent, as it is worldwide, it is also the most readily available and practiced sport in Africa. Africans have taken their practice of football to other parts of the world. The national team of countries like France parade a good number of Africans. Some European leagues will not be what they are without their African footballers’ content.
Young boys and, increasingly, girls can be found playing football, even if all they kick around is a lump of paper rolled into a spherical shape, an orange or a piece of discarded loaf of bread, a football game is one of the easiest to set up in Africa in spite of the narratives of gross impoverishment that have shaped and dominated the continent’s history.
Football is still the favourite sport of most Africans. It should, therefore, not be surprising that it’s in football that Africa has achieved, perhaps, one of her greatest moments in sports when current Liberian President, George Weah, won the award of World Footballer in 1995. He is the only African to have achieved that feat to date. And to see the “gospel” of football being spread across the world, even to places like North America, particularly the United States of America, is not a matter to be simply glossed over. I am not an avid follower of football but enjoy it only at a certain level and at particular times such as during the Mundial or when there is a major league or continental competition afoot. But there is no denying that it is a sport than has caught on globally, including in places that have their passion reserved for other sports.
Even in present day America, to speak of football as we know it is to speak of soccer, the name by which the sport is known. Otherwise, you are talking of a peculiar American thing, played by people of a peculiar built (you have to be, not only physically strong but of the right bulk or you could be knocked out senseless), something of a national sport that the Americans still like to pretend is a worldwide affair like football. Or baseball, another American sport, whose football World Cup equivalent is known by the grandiose name of World Series. The question is how many countries in the Americas, not to mention the western world, much less the universe, participate in this so-called World Series? It is an exclusively United States of America thing but since America likes to equate itself with the rest of the world, it is fine for it to pursue its peculiar sport in the name of the world. Which is not saying that American football or baseball is less of a sport, one is only looking at their relative popularity as sports for the rest of the world.
But football is king and that an African team is making good progress at the highest level of the sport is something to cheer.
With all three countries from Africa (Ghana and Cameroon being the other two- isn’t that too few?) parading home-grown managers, Africans have had something to cheer earlier. They didn’t have to wait for some middling European manager posturing as world class trainer to take the credit for their hard work. Yes, Morocco with its strong defensive-style football can still go further. There is no reason why it can’t or should rest on its oars yet. This year’s Mundial has been noted for its surprises, not the least of it being the shocked defeat of Argentina by Saudi Arabia in one of the early games or Cameroon’s defeat of Brazil even if they had to go home at the end of the game. Since then, there have been more shockers with Brazil worsted by Croatia and Portugal got drummed by Morocco. This is not dreaming too fast but there is yet no telling what could happen and who would end up with the crown. That’s why it’s a game even if some are better reputed than others.
While these African countries are making their mark, Nigeria is nowhere on the radar. Our lack of adequate preparation seems to be dogging our progress in a sport in which we were once among the major continental players. It’s a different story today. While the national league doesn’t seem to be making much progress, Nigerians still have their eyes set on the Premiership, the La Liga and Bundesliga among other major leagues of Europe. Football administrators are themselves fixated on the back politics of who gets what or controls the FA rather than paying attention to the development of the world’s beautiful game.
Football is no doubt the sport in which Nigeria has invested most but such investment seems to have gone to waste. There’s hardly anything to show for it in recent years. Perhaps, the example of Ghana, Cameroon and, now, Morocco can give us more belief in ourselves.