Football and politics: the marriage of interests survives

Dakar- Senegal (PANA) -- Of all games, football has long been considered a source, par excellence, of amusement in Africa.
From former Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah to the current Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade, through Sekou Toure (Guinea), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), Paul Biya (Cameroon) and Nelson Mandela (South Africa), African political leaders have put themselves into sports.
They support sports for prestige, fame and for national unity, hence it was no coincidence that the first two championship trophies were named after Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure, two staunch supporters of Pan-Africanism.
When Senegal for the first time in its history booked a place in the 2002 World Cup finals to be co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, pundits were quick to note that the came barely a year after a change on the country's political scene with Abdoulaye Wade taking over from Abdou Diouf.
Wade is thought to have played an important role in this qualification, chartering a plane for the national team to fly to Windhoek without hassle and pull a crucial win.
When the team defeated the Namibian side Wade, who was on an official visit to France, joined the heroes in Nouakchott on their way back to Senegal.
"I made a bet and won," the President gleefully shot back at critics who had charged that he was making political capital out the Lions' victory.
When in October 1993 Cameroon's Indomitable Lions qualified for the third time for the World Cup finals, millions of fans were proud of the performance of legendary Roger Milla, Omam Biyik, Stephen Tataw and their team mates as they poured into the streets in abandoned euphoria.
President Paul Biya even declared the following day, Monday 11 October, a public holiday.
These two examples eloquently show that sports and politics are closely related in Africa.
Wade and Biya are not the first African leaders to have considered sports a unifying factor and a source of prestige and international fame.
Kwame Nkrumah baptised Ghana's national side the Black Stars in 1959, in affirmation of his country's identity, and ostensibly to promote Pan-Africanism through sports.
Equally, Col.
Mobutu Sesse Sekou, who came to power in November 1965, took radical measures to develop football in Zaire, now DR Congo, obliging all Congolese players, who mainly ply their trade in Belgium, to play in the national team.
The Congolese lions were renamed Leopards and in the course of the fervour, the Zaire of Kibongo, Kalala, Kazardi and Kidumu won the African Cup of Nations in 1970, beating Cup holders Ghana 1-0.
Ndaye (best goal scorer at CAN 1974 in Cairo - 9 goals) Lobilo won the Cup again in 1974 in Egypt, besides a ticket to the 1974 World Cup finals in Germany.
Zairian football club Tout-puissant Englebert, with its two African champion titles (1967 and 1968), was back then in competition with the best African teams (Oryx of Douala in Cameroon, Ashanti Kotoko of Kumasi in Ghana) for continental leadership.
Sekou Toure, another staunch supporter of Pan-Africanism would follow the trail blazed by Nkrumah.
Music and football were promoted under the reign of Guinea's first president.
The Guinea national team qualified for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico and narrowly missed the Cup of Nations at the 1976 finals in Ethiopia.
But Sekou Toure's country was more glorious with Hafia of Conakry, formed in 1967 by the former Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG).
Sekou Toure maintained that Hafia "plays for the African democratic revolution" in the inner circle of the continent's big clubs.
Hafia reached the champions club finals five times winning three (1972, 1975 and 1977).
Later, other African leaders supported sports in their own style, including President Houari Boumediene of Algeria, who encouraged sponsorship of clubs by national firms.
Jeunesse Sportive of Kabylie, which became Jeunesse Electronique of Tizi Ouzou (sponsored by the state-run electricity corporation), benefited from this reform and carved out a niche in African football.
In 1972 President Marien Ngouabi Congo (Brazzaville) declared players of the national team Revolutionary Heroes, when they won the African Cup of Nations in neighbouring Cameroon.
Elsewhere, the late Houphouet Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire offered a house to each of the Ivorian 'Elephants' after they clinched the continental trophy in 1992 in Dakar.
More recently, former South African president Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the national team by donning the Bafana Bafana shirt after they won the African Cup of Nations in 1996, affirming that "football is the most unifying sport for us.
" African political leaders, convinced that sports can help them win the match of unity, do not hesitate to call rally the support of sportsmen.
Mali's Salif Keita, one of the most talented African football players of all time, was appointed Sports minister in his country's transitional government following the fall of Moussa Traore's military regime in 1991.
In addition to its role as common denominator of all people, sports can serve as a showcase of, as well as boost, a country's fame.
Algeria's 1982 victory over Germany in Seville, Spain, as well as Cameroon's exploits at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, have made these two countries influential and admirable.
In Africa, authorities most often cover all costs of national teams taking part in important tourneys, unlike in Europe where the game is professional.
Governments in Africa practically provide all the essential facilities in addition to paying bonuses to players and coaches' wages.
This involvement is sometimes even pushed to the extent of running into friction with the world football governing body, FIFA.
A few years ago a sports minister in Cameroon violated the FIFA directives when he set up a national federation most of whose members were co-opted rather than elected.
Last year, Guinea's sports minister disbanded the Guinean football federation, attracting the wrath of FIFA, which banned the country from all international competitions.
FIFA lifted its sanctions on Cameroon while Guinea, which refused to comply, was denied participation in the upcoming World Cup and the African Cup of Nations final tournaments.
In a similar clash between local political and international football authorities, Nigeria came under sanctions for refusing to take part in the 1996 African Cup of Nations finals in South Africa.
The Nigerians advanced security concerns as their reason for staying away from the tournament, but the Confederation of African Football reacted by suspending the team from the competition for two editions.
As a result, Nigeria missed the 1996 and 1998 championships.
Although they cited security reasons, there appeared to some political underpinnings to palaver, as the then Nigerian Head of State, General Sani Abacha, was in Mandela's bad books.

19 december 2001 12:01:00

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