It’s perhaps fitting that one of the greatest symbols of African unity and brotherhood is itself part of the legacy of colonialism and oppression that has defined recent history on the continent. Soccer is universally recognized as “the world’s game,” a sport that is played in nations across the globe without being exclusive to any particular one. Unlike American and Canadian sports such as hockey or basketball, soccer has near-universal appeal due to its simple rules and ease of interpretation. All anyone needs in order to play soccer is a ball and a field. There’s no complex equipment involved, and unlike hockey, soccer can be played in any environment and climate, from indoors arenas to outdoors, in deserts, forests and on beaches. However, soccer’s popularity is a direct product of European imperialism, imposed by whites as a result of centuries of colonization of non-white lands. Despite this origin, Africans have adopted soccer as their own, making their own unique spin on the game that has brought the continent together and helped to heal longstanding ethnic rifts. Going forward, soccer’s universal appeal will make it an integral part of African commerce and culture, as Africans play it, cheer on their favourite teams, and African businesses use the game to advertise and make money.
As mentioned above, soccer’s popularity is in large part due to the wave of European colonialism that defined the centuries prior to the 20th century. Beginning with Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492, Europeans sought to colonize and conquer lands outside of their continent in the pursuit of riches and wealth, freed from the internecine religious and ethnic wars that defined life in their homelands. Initially limiting their colonization to the Americas and the outer fringes of Asia and Africa, improved technology—as well as the wave of independence movements that shook the Americas beginning in 1776—forced the British, French and other European peoples to look elsewhere for land to grab. The Scramble for Africa in 1885 resulted in nearly all of the continent being subdivided among the European powers. With European colonization came the imposition of European culture in both direct and indirect ways, such as the spread of Christianity through missionary work. However, the cultural artefacts and traditions that Europeans brought with them also inadvertently influenced African cultures. Soccer was one of those traditions; a popular game in Europe, colonization resulted in it being spread to Africa and other colonized lands. Ironically, soccer has since become a unifying game for the peoples of the world, as its universal recognisability transcends ethnicities, races, religions, and nations.
In Africa, soccer clubs and teams have become focal points of national pride. This itself is a transplant from Europe; for example, individual soccer clubs in Britain are focused around pride in the cities in which they are based. However, in Africa, soccer clubs went beyond being mere repositories for nationalism and helped play an integral role in the independence movements of the 20th century. As detailed in Sellstrom’s article, soccer was a focal point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. While soccer was popular among all racial groups in South Africa, the racist apartheid regime declined to provide adequate funding for non-white soccer clubs, resulting in a massive disparity in regards to the resources they had available for playing games and organizing tournaments. Leagues themselves were also strictly racially segregated. John Langalilabele Dube, the founder of the African National Congress, the current ruling party of South Africa and a leading force in the fight against apartheid, was an avid soccer fan and intimately involved in promoting the game. Mohandas Gandhi, best-known for leading India’s non-violent struggle for independence from the British Empire, was also involved in local soccer clubs during his time in South Africa. Other notable anti-apartheid activists who were involved in playing and promoting soccer included Clements Kadalie, the president of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, as well as ANC President-General Albert Luthuli. Soccer’s significance to both whites and blacks in South Africa not only helped nurture and galvanize opposition to apartheid, it gave both racial groups a point of unity when it came to their ultimate reconciliation in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Soccer continues to be an important unifying cultural tradition in post-apartheid South Africa.
Soccer’s importance in Africa has helped turn it into a multibillion dollar industry, one that commercial interests are eager to take advantage of. As detailed in Alegi’s article, football has become increasingly privatized in Africa, with the creation of “football academies” to train players in the game and the transformation of tournaments and cup games into commercialized events. This has helped African football reach new and wider audiences, but has also worsened the wealth gap on the continent. Additionally, while African football has historically been dominated by men, women’s teams are increasingly becoming popular as the sport becomes co-ed. These changes have led to massive alterations in how Africans view themselves as well as the sport.
Soccer is going to remain a fixture of the African cultural landscape for decades to come. Its popularity with Africans makes it an important tool of cultural change and progress in the realm of social equality. Additionally, the wealth it has generated through its popularity has helped to turn it into one of Africa’s biggest businesses. Ultimately, on a continent riven by ethnic and cultural division, football is one of the biggest things bringing Africans together.