Sports pack some of life’s most important lessons. With an abundance of resilience, fortitude, hope, dignity – sports come as quite the drug.
The ongoing African Cup of Nations is testament to these lessons. From the rising of underdogs, to the elimination of giants and the remarkable resilience shown by the host nation, there is a lot that will last long in the memory. The lessons at such that whoever wins it on the 11th of February would only be a winner among many other winners. And really, no one has been left behind. Only 24 countries may have qualified out of 54 countries but it is an entire continent that has been treated to a spectacle broadcast around the world.
The oft repeated caveat is to keep politics out of sports. But in many ways, the values that sports bring can sanitize the poisonous politics that pollutes many African countries.
In 2021, Guinea and Mali experienced military coups that marked the instant interruption of democracy in both countries. Burkina Faso followed suit in 2022. While the tournament was going on, the three countries announced they were pulling out of the Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS). As of the time the announcement came, all three countries had posted impressive performances in the tournament. Burkina Faso reached the round of 16 while Mali and Guinea reached the quarterfinals with the former knocking out Burkina Faso along the way. It may seem insignificant but experience has shown the tremendous power that even a little positive distraction can have on the psyche of an entire country.
Ivory Coast, the host country, used to host one of Africa’s most resilient crisis center until Didier Drogba, who is arguably the country’s greatest player of all time, brought the country together in an indelible moment that proved the power of a round leather. At a match against Madagascar on June 3, 2007, before 25,000 spectators, Drogba got rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Quattara to shake hands and pledge to work for peace in their divided country.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most successful footballing country, the round leather game has never failed to unite a divided country. Once a Nigerian team, male or female, takes to the field, Nigerians who are otherwise notoriously divided along ethnic and religious lines leave their divisions behind to support their team. As the ball rolls over the grass with twenty-two men behind it, fractious fault lines are repaired if only for ninety minutes.
Football has been a gift. Children, born into backbreaking disadvantage, who somehow manage to escape grinding poverty and play football at the highest levels have been known to lift entire generations out of poverty. The work that legendary Senegalese striker Sadio Mane continues to do in his village of Bambali is testament to that. Just outside the African continent, many South American countries especially Brazil and Argentina show what a force football can be.
The beauty of the beautiful game shines forth in many respects and has often proven stronger than hate and bitterness. Even corruption. Its rules are by no means perfect but the transparency and openness it engenders give a semblance of equal opportunity to all.
Africa can learn from a game whose beauty endures. In a continent that struggles to conduct free and fair elections, there are lessons to be learnt about fairness and transparency. A continent that struggles with conflict and poverty can learn peace and progress from the way the football progresses up the pitch.
The Confederation of African Football ( CAF) should do more to improve the image of football on the continent, especially the organization of age-group competitions to encourage more and more people to take up the sport.
Football is already an incredibly popular sport on the continent but more should still be done to integrate gender into the game. More resources should be channeled into the women’s game as a deliberate strategy to improve gender justice.
On Sunday, February 11,2024, two giants of African football, two countries recently torn by strife will collide in what promises to be a hugely entertaining affair.
No one gave Nigeria much of a chance when the tournament began. As the tournament progressed, Cote d’ivoire died and resurrected again. Both countries emblematize the resilience, hope and defiance that the beautiful game can conjure even in the bleakest of circumstances. Their totem animals- the eagle and the elephant- represent the best in the air and on land, and powerfully symbolize just how powerful and dominant the African continent can be its countries can cast their differences aside and collectively pursue peace.
Whatever happens, it will be yet another testament to the unmatched miracle of the beautiful game. As a sport, football endures. So should peace on the African continent and the permanent cessation of all hostilities.