Africa: In the Name of the Beautiful Game

26 June 2019

Welcome to our new series on the world's most beloved sport and how it intersects with all aspects of our lives.

In Cairo, Dakar, Harare or Luanda; over heated debates, raised voices, spilled drinks in roadside bars with beer, pepper soup and cigarettes; in living rooms with the television at full volume, with brothers, sisters, parents fixed to it while navigating the tension of supporting opposing teams; in office cafeterias and university hostels, the quiet of which will be inevitably be upset, glory comes to mean the same thing: A round leather ball kicked successfully into a net.

Across Africa, we watch, play and celebrate the beautiful game that is football at the same feverish pitch we accord politics or religion. During games, screams can be heard from neighbours. Feet will be stomped into the ground. Roads will be eerily empty. Victories can inspire last minute parties or even impromptu holidays. Losses can spark moods that would be fitting at a funeral.

But it goes even beyond that. Football has enormous, far-reaching, often paradoxical powers. It has fostered community amongst the most unlikely people. It has been leveraged as a call for national and continental unity; our differences pale in comparison to football, the tie that binds us together, the thing we all have in common.

Things can take a less savoury turn too. Football has been exploited and weaponised by governments for political gain. At the moment, the continent's biggest tournament - the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) - is being hosted by a country run by a dictatorial regime seeking to burnish its image. The game provokes tears and inspires anger, even violence. Opposing fans are not always able to rise above their emotions and end up attacking one another.

Still, football is a party to which all of us are welcome and invited. And we join, happily. Some of us find escape through it. As a slightly effeminate teenager, playing football was my salvation from bullies who policed others' masculinity. Being part of their team, engaging in an often gruff, supposedly hyper-masculine sport, spared me scrutiny and abuse, momentarily.

I have since grown to love the game for what it is. This love manifests most loudly for me, and doubtless millions of others, during AFCON. For one full month, we watch our heroes, and those of our neighbours', playing for national pride and glory. We re-ignite long held rivalries. We forget about the dire headlines and politics, the daily tedium.

Uganda's dictator Yoweri Museveni may be doing all he can to suppress change in his country, but for now, it feels far more important that their national team just impressively won against a decent DR Congo side and currently top their group. Kenya's courts may be stopping queer people from attaining a life equal to others in society, but their football team is making a grand return to the continent's biggest showcase after a 15-year absence, a thing of pride.

In Cameroon, English-speaking people are being systematically oppressed, but should our paths cross in this year's games, I will remember how my country Nigeria has still not avenged its painful loss to Cameroon on penalties in the 2000 AFCON Final when one of our biggest stars missed his. I cried for days.

In the spirit of sport we all love, its power, and against the backdrop of AFCON, we have produced a special mini series, in words and images, to run over the next few weeks. It will explore how football intersects with divergent aspects of our lives - culture, migration, politics, economics - for good or bad. It will look at how it helps establish identity for Africans away from home. How it is being militarised for political gain. How street soccer is a common source of joy for young people all over the continent.

This series is by no means exhaustive. That would perhaps be impossible. But what is here, is for all of us. We live in the name of the beautiful game.


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