Why AFCON 2017 matters for Africa
African Cup of Nations kicked off last night in Libreville, Gabon after a colourful opening ceremony. In the opening match Guinea Bissau’s Juary Soares grabbed a leveller for debutants west African country after Borussia Dortmund’s striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had put hosts Gabon ahead. In second match, with both teams playing attractive football, Burkina Faso secured a 1-1 draw with Cameroon which had taken on 35 minutes after Benjamin Moukandjo superb free-kick into the left corner hit the net when Issoufou Dayo nodded in the equaliser. CAF, Africa’s football’s governing body, is not a perfect multinational corporation. It would be quite naïve to envisage that the African Cup of Nations should have the capacity to bring Africa peace, fix inequality, stamp out corruption and overcome other issues espoused by various media and public commentators in recent days. On balance, however, the African Cup of Nations as an institution is a force for Africa good in my view and for a number of reasons. First, the tournament brings Africa together. CAF has 54 national football associations affiliated to it that compete in the various competitions it organises. These members also aim to qualify for the World Cup finals every four years with next global showpiece slated for Russia next summer. While only 32 countries compete in the World Cup finals, over the years many African countries have qualified although some of them like Nigeria and Cameroon have done so on more than three occasions. This high level of Africa Cup of Nations participation is unprecedented among sporting events and provides many opportunities for regional contact and soft diplomacy. This time round unfortunately the Super Eagles of Nigeria didn’t qualify after a lacklustre campaign.
In Africa, football is played in all countries around the continent, by both sexes, all classes, all shapes and sizes, in diverse venues and by groups who are marginalised in certain societies. There are men’s and women’s CAF cups, youth CAF cups to mention but a few.Football’s growth, while owing much to the game’s intrinsic nature, is also indebted to the African Cup of Nations. Football is an established sport in many African countries but it is still relatively new phenomenon in some parts of the continent. Regional participation in football, which is supported by the African Cup of Nations, plays a major role in creating cohesion.Also importantly, the African Cup of Nations doesn’t reinforce hegemonic power relations. Nigeria, the new Africa superpower, failed to qualify for the 2017 African Cup of Nations. To cut the long story, African football creates its own order.The footballers who compete in the African Cup of Nations become role models for youth around the continent. The players, with all their athleticism and skills, are positive role models. In African football there are almost no drug scandals, fewer betting scandals and fewer instances of on-field violence. When anything negative happens, it is condemned by all and action is taken. Thats the beauty of African football.While many of the footballers are multi-millionaires their participation in the African Cup of Nations transcends money. The Gabon team is motivated to do well to bring joy to their nation, which has been reeling from political hardships. Despite their domestic difficulties, Zimbabwe fought valiantly to qualify.
No matter what the national circumstances, the African Cup of Nations motivates youth around the continent to play football and be better human beings. In this way, it plays an important role in transgenerational development. While watching opening matches last night, it was clear the standard of play at the African Cup of Nations has surpassed all expectations and will continue to draw in new fans. There will be plenty of goals and most teams in most games are expected to play positive football. The beauty of African football is not the blow out scores but the closeness of games. Low scoring games create tension and thats what between now and beginning of February African football fans will experience. In my view, low scoring tension is what makes football so special and gripping. Gripping viewing means the game draws in millions of viewers. Again, this builds social cohesion and capital.In my visits to different countries in Africa, I am always interested to see what the locals from diverse parts of African society thought about the legacy of the African football since 2010 World Cup that was hosted in South Africa.Most of those I’ve interacted with believes football brought the continent together and Africa. It has also been the catalyst for many domestic football initiatives. Having in mind the usual hegemonic criteria that govern the continent, Gabon may not have been the ideal venue for the 2017 tournament any more than South Africa or Nigeria. The point is that CAF with all its faults governs the African Cup of Nations as a force of good and African unity. And from what I saw on television happening in Gabon last night, the tournament will continue to be so, at least in the foreseeable future.