The Effect of Globalisation on African Football – Politics

Africa Cup 2012 qualifiers: Burkina Faso-Namibia

Globalisation is a term that evokes controversy even in its definition. It is said that it was the anti-globalisation movement that really defined globalisation by bringing it out of the financial and academic worlds and into everyday current affairs discussions. In discussing the effect of globalisation on Africa, I use the definition provided by Investopedia, which in my opinion is balanced.

“Globalization represents the global integration of international trade, investment, information technology and cultures. Government policies designed to open economies domestically and internationally to boost development in poorer countries and raise standards of living for their people are what drive globalization. However, these policies have created an international free market that has mainly benefited multinational corporations in the Western world to the detriment of smaller businesses, cultures and common people.” – Investopedia

In looking at the effect of globalisation on African football we will mainly focus on the second half of the 20th century, but with some reference to earlier periods mostly to understand how football came to Africa, itself an aspect of globalisation. We also use the PEST (Political, Economic, Social-Cultural, Technological) analysis tool in an attempt to cover the various facets outlined in defining the term globalisation. In this first part we look at political globalisation.

Political globalisation

Political globalisation and its effect on football in Africa are mainly manifested in colonisation and the fight against colonisation. Football was brought to Africa first by the colonial armies and police forces who highly valued sporting, the moral and social ethos of competitive games and wanted to instil the same in African recruits. The soldiers were later followed by the churches and public schools who were even more games-oriented and helped accelerate the spread of football across the continent.

Africans embraced football and made it their own, forming clubs that would later serve as platforms for promoting nationalism. It was observed that self-made soccerists emerged all over the continent in the first half of the 20th century. They were equipped with new organisational skills (often gained in the administration of football), institutional bases of support (attached football clubs) and unquenchable self-confidence that accumulated sporting and political victories can bring. The ability of Africans to self-organise made their colonial masters feel threatened in some instances.

Two instances that stand out and that have reverberations down to this day are football’s role in the war against apartheid and the Algerian FLN team that led the revolution against their French colonisers.

World Cup 2010 Uruguay Ghana

2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final match between Ghana and Uruguay in South Africa

In the case of apartheid, football was used as a platform to bring the issue to the world stage mainly through the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), which played a pivotal role in democratizing football and making it truly global. It is this struggle for freedom and equality that culminated in South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup, the first in the continent. This World Cup was seen as Africa’s chance to announce itself on the global stage – “It’s time for Africa”.

One of the most dramatic examples of the linkage of African football to anti-colonial resistance was the formation of the Algerian National Liberation Front’s “national” team during the war of independence against France. In 1958, ten Algerian professional players left their base in France to join the nationalist movement in their home country with three objectives as were outlined by the FLN: 1. To deny France the service of key players; 2. To heighten international awareness of the Algerian fight for independence; and 3. To demonstrate that the FLN’s war enjoyed the support of Algerians, at home and abroad. This episode received the international attention that FLN had hoped for leading to the independence of Algeria in 1962.

However, this did not stop the emigration of Algerian players as well as players from French West African colonies to France. This continued to rob Africa of its rich talent while at the same time contributing to political and sociocultural tensions in the European country. This is well captured in the football documentary Les Blues that charts the remarkable rise and fall of the French national side from 1996 to 2006. The documentary looks at French politics and society through the prism of the national football team. The victorious 1998 team, with the likes of Zidane, Desailly, and Thuram were worshipped as a paragon of inclusion and multiculturalism, referred to in mythological terms, as the side of White-Black-Arab. This masked serious issues and ultimately racial and ethnic tensions in France erupted as the national side declined.  The situation reached rock bottom with a botched friendly attempt between France and Algeria in France in 2001.

France has been able to pick themselves up as was witnessed in their triumph at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. More than half the team was made up of second or third generation Africans, with their best players at the tournament, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe all having roots in Africa. This was not unique to France, as teams such as Belgium and Germany also had their fair share of second and third generation immigrants.


Pan-Africanism refers to the principle or advocacy of the political union of all indigenous inhabitants of Africa. It is seen as a worldwide intellectual movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between people of African descent. Pan-Africanism can also be understood as a movement that sought to resolve historical injustices against indigenous Africans such as the slave trade and colonisation. To an extent, the negative consequences of globalisation are also countered with pan-Africanism though the success of such movements is debatable.

Ghana Football Team from the 1960s

Ghana Football Team from the 1960s

In football, pan-Africanism was especially strong as countries began to agitate for and gain independence in the 50s and 60s. Ghana under Kwame Nkurumah exemplified this. Following Ghana’s independence in the 1950s (Nkurumah led an African government from 1951 but the British only left in 1957), Kwame Nkurumah set himself on a mission to rid his newly found country of any traces of European influence and sought to transcend the boundaries constructed by Europeans hoping to spread his ideologies of socialism and interventionism throughout independent Africa. His radical pan-Africanism became commonplace rhetoric of almost every new independent African state.

In his political journey, football played a central role as it formed a platform where he could push his agenda. Immediately after gaining independence Ghana joined CAF and hosted the 1963 Cup of Nations. Regional tournaments were also organised to showcase the Ghana national football team. Interestingly, the Ghana national football team was/still is nicknamed Black Stars in memory of the ship The Black Star chartered by Caribbean pan-African leader Marcus Garvey in 1922 to take back black Americans and Caribbeans back to Africa. The Black Stars also played exhibition matches both in Africa and Europe where they made an extensive tour that included a match against Real Madrid.

The Way Forward

One might ask why are we considering football from a political globalisation perspective. Well, for the continent to develop the sport it is important to understand the political history and how it manifests itself in today’s game. For example, football was one of the tools that were used to fight apartheid and the 2010 World Cup was seen as a culmination of this fight and Africa finally announcing itself on the global stage. But did this really happen? How much did South Africa and Africa as a whole benefit from hosting the showpiece? Should Africa consider hosting the tournament again soon? What would be the lasting benefits of doing so?

We can also draw some positive lessons from political times past. For example, the capability of self-organisation that Africans portrayed when football was first introduced them. We still see this in many African countries with teams mushrooming everywhere despite the lack of proper grassroots structures. How can we tap into this kind of capability to bring about more systematic development of the sport in Africa? Thousands of African players are now plying their trade in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. Can they emulate 10 Algerians by coming back home, not necessarily to starve the global stage of their talent but to support the growth of the game? How can this be organised?

Lastly, we have seen that football was normally used as a political vehicle in Africa. This has continued down to this day much to the detriment of the sport. The politicization of football has led to low levels of professionalism in managing the sport. So what can be done to rectify this? Football and politics are closely intertwined. How can we find the right balance to allow for professionalism and help the industry to grow?

Finding the answers to some of these questions and putting together corresponding action plans might prove instrumental in taking our game the next level. Closely related to political globalisation is economic globalisation. We will look at this in the next article.


The Ball is Round: A Global History of FootballDavid GoldBlatt

African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game – Peter Alegi


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