Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Africa United

What can unite Africa? The African Union cannot do it. The United Nations cannot do it. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and African Development Bank cannot do it. Poverty cannot do it. Wars cannot do it. So what can bring this huge continent to seem that it is at one? Football!

I wont go into the statistics on the African Nations Cup, which is held every two years--this time in Accra, Ghana (fitting having celebrated 50 years of independence). The official web site contains a lot of such information. What I know is that the continent is often broadly at peace during this period. In Guinea, unions were due to launch another unlimited national strike but it was suspended so that people could focus on watching the games; they have been rewarded because the national team has put itself in position to qualify for the next round.

When you look at the teams playing this time round you see something amazing about football: it seems to transcend economic, social, and political woes. How else do you explain that Sudan qualified from the same group as Tunisia (albeit with the presence of weak rivals such as the Seychelles and Mauritius)? That war-torn country takes its place nobly with the likes of North African football powerhouses (Egypt [most final appearances and most championships], Morocco, Tunisia). It sits proudly with the west African dancing stars (Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal). It eats from the same plate as the once officially racially divided (South Africa). It sits lowly but no less deservingly with the countries rising from or still mired in economic and political woes (Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Zambia). Its desert poverty does not compare with the diamond richness (Namibia).

For the period of the matches most eyes on the continent will be focused on one thing only: men chasing after a ball with the hope of kicking it into a net. Ironically, if teams do well people go crazy; but when they lose they go crazy too. Governments do not mess with the teams' arrangements. Budgets that were empty for schools and medicines suddenly find cash to help teams travel or to pay for television rights so that the people can watch. From my experience in Guinea there wont be a shortage of electricity during he times when games are televised. People wont be watching in huge plazas with Jumbotron screens. They will be huddled around small screens, ears glued to radios, even listening to coverage by cellphones. People will gather mainly in shack bars and little hut restaurants. Those settings don't matter.

If the national team is playing the reactions are stronger. They get strongest when the team plays neighbouring rivals: Nigeria-Ghana; Guinea-Senegal. People will take to the streets to celebrate the wins. But they will find reason to celebrate losses too. I remember during the last championship when Guinea had been eliminated. Many people had expected qualification and planned parties. Within hours of losing the key game, rumours circulated that the team had qualified on a technicality. The people went wild and even though within a short time the news came that no such change had happened, they partied like crazy anyway.

The African Nations Cup has taken on more importance in recent years because it has now become a showcase for the continent's talent. I came across it foot-to-foot when I played in Malawi during a tour; then in my late twenties players were shocked that I had not retired. They saw the pace and trickery of their style of play as too much for someone over 25. The high quality and special style of African players had been long known and exploited in some western European countries (France and Belgium, especially), which had used colonial contacts to make a good link with this "talent factory". With African teams qualifying for recent World Cups and doing very well the world's eyes were opened wide. National teams now get invitations to play friendlies with the major international soccer powers like Brazil, Germany, Argentina, England and Italy. Many players have taken up offers to play in the English Premier League where they are more than just household names but a strong part of the backbone of many teams (Chelsea being perhaps the best example). Now their need to leave to play in their continental tournament each two years puts their clubs under pressure.

The path had been laid by amazing players such as Liberia's George Weah (whose talents found their way to AC Milan, where he scored an all-time great goal by running almost the length of the field and beating almost every player to score--watch the video). Cameroon's amazing performance in 1982 in qualifying for the World Cup, and how they thrilled in Spain, laid another platform. Cameroon showed that they were no "one hit wonder" when they qualified for the 1990 World Cup, where they beat holders Argentina and then Romania before qualifying for the next round as the only team to ever do so with negative goal difference. In that round they nearly beat England, and had playing their veteran player and inspirational "lion", Roger Milla, who was 40 but played like a teenager. The world now knows Drogba and Eto'o, Adeybayor and Jay Jay Okocha thanks to the long uneven road travelled by their precedessors, who had to endure limited opportunities given by FIFA for them to shine on the biggest world stage.

African players can now earn unbelievable salaries and are commonly seen as superstars. Those who rise to those heights have left behind many who now hope to rise from abject poverty to see the glitz and bling of England, France, Spain and Italy. Some have ensured that their riches go back to not just families but to wider communities. Some have used their popularity to venture into politics, as did George Weah, who ran in the last Liberian presidential elections. African footballers can teach the world a lot. The stars come from an enormous well of local talent that often plays in disorganized leagues and in playing conditions that we would think laughable, but it produces talent. Many countries have used foreign coaches for their national teams, but many have also developed good organizations at the national level to sustain the move upwards (such as Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali). This is a sign of the maturity of these countries, who are leaving less to chance and talent alone. Their success has also allowed the world to see that amongst these players are many intelligent, articulate men, who do much to change the image of Africa. It also helps remind people that the continent is like a player or like a team. It has a good head (say the northern nations Morocco and Egypt). It has a strong midfield (say the two Congos). It has good right wingers (Eritrea, Sudan). It plays skillfully on the left (say Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria). It has good feet (say Zimbabwe and South Africa).

Unfortunately for me I wont be able to watch any of the games unless I find myself in Europe. I will follow the fortunes of Guinea and hope that they at least go to the next round. Our nanny got back from there yesterday and her face was beaming that the team was doing well and that the population had forgotten about striking for pay but focused on striking for goal. It's not a bad way to build hope.

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