Football may well be a galvanizing force for forging a national conscience, as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously argued, but it also goes some way to reflecting the conscience in which nations are perceived by others. This is not necessarily a symbiotic relationship.
The African Cup of Nations is continually and resolutely framed by the British media as the villain in the Premier league pantomime piece, robbing top clubs of their top players and disrupting the league season. This may be an inevitable and unsurprising stance given the significance of the impact felt by clubs losing departing African national players. But it should be less inevitable that the negative press furore inspired by pre-tournament scrambling is rarely balanced by positive coverage of the tournament itself.
It’s a lazy argument that the attitude of our press towards the African Cup of Nations is reflective of the deeper relationship between Africa and the West, namely one of disinterest in anything outside conflict, disease and disaster. A more pragmatic argument may suggest that the Western audience demand for African football simply does not warrant extensive coverage, although the number of global mega-stars participating, diversity of cultural backgrounds in, and increasingly global social outlook of, Europe should put pay to that argument. Besides, try selling that to ITV4 bosses who are banking on the “huge following” of the Cup in the UK to secure broadcasting rights to four matches.
Certainly the relationship between African football and Europe is composed of more interchange and exchange than our faltering attention to the African Cup of Nation suggests.
The targeting of talented African players by European clubs in the pursuit of rich rewards is aggressive. Manchester United and Bolton are amongst those Premier League clubs with ‘Soccer schools’ on the continent, whilst Dutch clubs have done similar, Feyenoord setting up an academy in Accra, and Ajax owning South African Premier League side Ajax Cape Town to use as a feeder club. The rewards reaped by successful African players are equally lucrative as they become elevated to the ranks of mega-stardom, earning huge wages and joining the club of international professionals who are detached from all strictures of reality.
Meanwhile ordinary Africans are enslaved to the European league competitions, sucked into its capitalist machinations through purchasing merchandise and watching matches on television. The scale of support for the European Leagues, in particular the English Premier League, across much of the continent is staggering: African hearts are fixed firmly on Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and, more recently, Manchester City, to the extent of murders being carried out by rival fan groups.
So far it’s the privately owned European clubs and corporate sponsors who are benefitting from the one way flow of talent and support from the African continent.
An argument may be made that this status quo is not necessarily damaging. The African talent which is nurtured by European clubs might otherwise be left stagnant in less wealthy African clubs and African footballers do in fact invest a lot of their time and earnings into social and sporting welfare projects in their home nations (Essien, Kanu, Eto’o and Jobo to name but a few). Didier Drogba has even been credited with playing a vital role in bringing peace to Côte d’Ivoire in 2006, through his successful plea to combatants to lay down their arms.
There is no denying that football is huge business. Deloitte have estimated that the European football market size, in terms of total revenue, was €16.3bn (£14.1bn) in 2010. This revenue is generated by four main sources: match day revenues, television rights, sponsorship, and other commercial revenues. The majority of this money is spent on salaries of players and managers. But the potential is there for some of it to be used in socially responsible ways. Even the very act of generating revenue for football clubs can be a tool for social empowerment, serving not only as a source of income for many people, but also as a means to create local economic development, social cohesion, education and personal development. If the African football market could substantially increase its revenue, the repercussions on other social and economic spheres would be exciting.
Various sponsors, those who already have a foot in the continent, have recognized the African Cup of Nations as an excellent business opportunity: Orange and Samsung are amongst those battling for the burgeoning and lucrative mobile phone market on the continent, PepsiCo has a strong presence through its popular food and beverage brands. It seems that support for the African Cup of Nations makes good business sense from both ends.
In an age of corporate responsibility, and growing questions over the effectiveness of aid, it makes sense to review how the African Cup of Nations can best be utilized as an opportunity to invest in African football and, through this, local economic development and social cohesion of African nations. It is no surprise that China chose to help the newest national football team, South Sudan, build their stadium in Juba in July 2010. Whatever their political motivations for doing so, their decision displays an intuitive recognition that football, as every man and women on the street (awell as Kissinger) is aware, is a powerful social and economic force which should be embraced and utilized.
While persuading more businesses to sponsor African national football team, and more television companies to compete for the rights to broadcast, may not seem the most obvious, direct or efficient means to invest in the continent, the gains brought about could be substantial and have reverberate effects. In an ideal world boosted revenues for national teams could be used as a means to aid domestic leagues develop infrastructure, training and staff positions; the growth of individual clubs may provide the catalyst for centers of economic growth.