Almost nowhere on earth is football followed as passionately as in Africa. It is loved by Africans from all walks of life across the continent. This week, I am giving the opening address at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards in Accra, Ghana. This has afforded me a good opportunity to reflect on Africa’s relationship with football and how it can help deliver a brighter future for our young people.
I believe we need only look to the Liberian presidential election for a fine example of the transformative power of football. Against the odds, football legend and opposition candidate, George Weah was victorious and today, is President-elect of Liberia, one of Africa’s most popular countries. Weah’s perseverance in the face of an initial unsuccessful attempt is a testament to the endurance football teaches.
Before he was a Presidential candidate, of course, Mr. Weah was an outstanding footballer whose career spanned great clubs like Paris Saint Germain, Marseille, Monaco and even English Premiership giants like Chelsea and Manchester City.
A striker of fearsome reputation, Weah has been described as the greatest footballer to emerge from Africa, confirmed in 1995 when he won both FIFA Footballer of the Year and the highly valued Ballon d’Or. Over a three year period, in 1989, 1995 and 1996, he claimed the top prize of African Footballer of the year, crowning that in 1996 with the African Footballer of the Century award.
The power of a footballer entering frontline politics cannot be overstated, for two reasons. First, it shows that politics is accessible to all, to the ambitious individual who dares envisage a way he or she can contribute to their country’s future. Second, it makes politics interesting and relevant to young people. If our continent is ever to reach its full potential, then it is our young people who are going to deliver it.
Africa’s youth are already shaping today and redefining tomorrow with their creativity, passion and innovation. I believe that the greatest gift that our generation can give them is to continue to provide platforms for aspiration, recognition and inspiration. But the idea of ‘opportunity’ or of ‘potential’ can be an abstract enough concept to adults never mind the younger generation, many of whom have been overlooked by the decisions of governments not to allow funds raised from investment to trickle down into stronger education systems, apprenticeships and advancement.
In football, the notion of opportunity is far from abstract. Football has always been a unifying factor and a great tool for promoting integration and development. But more than that, it is a global currency, a language spoken in the United Kingdom as much as in Brazil, China and Nigeria. And in football we see, most tangibly, the bold young role models and ambassadors of Africa who are inspiring others and have set the pace in their pursuit of excellence.
Of course, we must be careful not to set false expectations. Football is affected by the same attrition rate that applies to other sports in that very many are called but few ultimately make the dizzy heights that many dream of. President Barack Obama pointed out that youth in the United States may have good role models for economic empowerment and entrepreneurship in the music industry, but that it was unlikely that each child would grow up ‘to be the next Lil Wayne’, so children must also work hard in school. The same can be said of football: not all of our children will grow up to be the next George Weah, Abedi Pele, Dider Drogba or Jay Jay Okocha, but these role models still offer young people a concrete example of the hard work that goes into the pursuit of excellence.
The example of football goes far beyond the 22 men or women who stand on the pitch for 90 minutes each week. I know this because I have seen the extraordinary depth of support services that go into creating the finished product of a football match, and the transformative role they play when properly looked after.
Over the last year, Aiteo has been supporting sports development in Nigeria, leading a partnership agreement with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to provide financial Support to the technical team of Nigeria’s national team for the next five years. In the months since, Nigeria has won more games than they have lost and has qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Aiteo has also made significant contributions towards developing the local football by underwriting the costs associated with organising the Federation Cup, Nigeria’s equivalent of the English FA Cup, helping smaller teams grow and improve on the national stage.
With coaching roles, training roles, marketing, advertising, commercial partnerships and merchandising roles all part of the infrastructure of a newly-global Nigerian football team, no child need only grow up to be the next Alex Iwobi if they are to benefit from the transformative power of football. If a footballer can become the head of a nation, they why not a football coach, a medic or a marketing executive?
So, when I stand on the stage this week to open the CAF Awards, the winners will be very clear to me before the awards have even been handed out: the true winners will be every young person who sees that event; sees that the eyes of the world are on Africa and that a future for each one of them exists in which they can go beyond their school, their hobbies, their parents, and truly embrace their potential. Because the way we conceive the future sculpts the present.