Football and the “Burden of Patriotism” in Africa

15 Jul

The African continent, from Cape to Cairo, is awash with Football Fever. All eyes are on Egypt where the African Nations Cup is currently taking place. The competition, with its mixture of unrealistic expectations and unexpected triumphs; of Cinderella stories and might falls; of epic David and Goliath battles; of great illusions and shattered ambitions; and of pure flashes of genius rivaled by pedestrian displays, will end on February 10th.

Togolese fans during the game between Cameroon and Togo

As in previous years, Cameroon is one of the favorites. The Cameroonian national team started the competition on a high note with a 3-1 defeat of World Cup-bound Angola. Cameroon’s three goals were scored by Samuel Eto’o who plies his trade in Barcelona, Spain.

Eto’o, who had initially flirted with the idea of skipping the tournament because of persistent administrative and other problems in the national team, was instantly hailed as a “true patriot” who had risen to the occasion to defend the honor and pride of the nation. As I read these glowing tributes couched in ultra nationalistic terms reminiscent of Communist Russia, I could not help but marvel at how African politicians has succeeded in transforming football into a most potent tool for political mobilization around vague notions of national unity.

As I mulled over this fact, I recalled the observation of an American Peace Corps in Cameroon when Marc Vivien Foe collapsed and died in 2003 while playing for the Cameroon national team: “Anyway, the entire country is mourning here. It’s quite different. People are calling him a patriot and I keep thinking that he’s just a soccer player who left his country to make more money playing in France and England but still plays on his country’s national team when they play.”

I must confess that like any Cameroonian who loves his football, I found this observation a tad sacrilegious, and was initially ticked off by what seemed like a trivialization of Foe’s death. However, I eventually started thinking about the real and imagined significance of football in Cameroon and other African countries, and its appropriation by politicians for political gain.

Why is it that when a Cameroonian soldier dies in Bakassi (fighting in what most Cameroonians considers a “Just War”) he is never given a hero’s burial or lauded as a patriot or a valiant soldier – his death is not even a footnote on the news – but when a Cameroonian footballer excels in his trade like Roger Milla, or “dies in battle” (another military term!) like Foe, he is hailed as a patriot, a true soldier, etc., etc.,? Why label a footballer a soldier and then make the soldier invincible? Why the double standards? Do we have our priorities all wrong?

I shared my thoughts with members of the Cameroon football forum,CAMFOOT, back in December 2004 and all the answers pointed to the fact that “normal” rules do not apply to football because it is simply a different ball game (excuse the pun…). Here is a sample of the responses:

  1. Soccer brings the feel-good factor. In a country like Cameroon with hardly anything going right, only soccer is there to talk about. Treating a soccer player who dies on duty as a hero could bring a lot of political gain to the person in power.
  2. Cameroonians–both politicians and the press — do not generally talk about war, even when it is common knowledge to everyone that some fighting is going on. To treat a dead soldier as a hero is to admit that Cameroon is at war, and to expose the numbers that have been killed. Openness is not tolerated by Etoudi [Residence and Offices of the Cameroon President]. In fact, showing too much interest in the plight of soldiers in Bakassi could land you in trouble.
  3. Football is one of the few things that truly unites Cameroonians. When the players go on the pitch, nobody thinks of where they come from, but only how well they do on the pitch.
  4. The [national team] is the only thing that Cameroonians can be proud of. The [Indomitable Lions are] a source of national identity and pride. Cameroon today is seen as a footballing nation and hence Foe’s death, live on TV and defending the national colours affected us a lot more that those killed in Bakassi. All of this is used by politicians to their own ends.
  5. Someone once said of religion as being the opium of the masses. Football is the opium of the people.
  6. That football has turned into religion for Cameroonians doesn’t bother me. What annoys me most is the never-ending irresponsibility of this government which exploits the fans … and keeps them uneducated about real issues (job creation, social welfare, politics and war).

The Burden of Patriotism
All of these points are true in one way or the other, but they don’t explain why footballers are the only ones required to carry the “burden of patriotism” in Africa.  Is Eto’o less patriotic when he fails to score a goal, as was the case in last year’s crucial encounter against Egypt which resulted in Cameroon’s elimination from the 2006 World Cup tournament? Did Inter Milan’s Pierre Wome commit treason when he missed that vital 95th minute penalty during the game against Egypt which could have taken Cameroon to Germany? Cameroonians and the Cameroonian Government seem to think so. Wome was initially selected by Cameroon’s Portuguese coach Artur Jorge for the ongoing Egyptian campaign (can’t just stay from the marshal language, can we…), but he was later dropped from the squad because Cameroonian authorities considered his presence in Egypt as “problematic” – after all, hadn’t he betrayed the nation in its time of need?

I can’t help but wonder if those punishing Wome for missing a penalty – a very common occurrence in football – have thought of extending this “performance clause” to all sectors of national life. Why not impose the same standards on teachers in failing schools; on managers of underperforming corporations, on incompetent civil servants, on corrupt government officials, etc., ? Wouldn’t that be the beginning of a real revolution in Africa?

Of course, that is just wishful thinking. The prebendal political systems of post-Independent Africa will continue as African Governments thank their gods that the masses still view football as something unique with its own set of rules and expectations.

In Africa, “with its density, variety, vivacity, open wounds, illusions, beliefs and battles,” once wrote Heidi Hamel of African football magazine, “football is the only opium with which one can keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay. This painful dependency reflects an unavoidable need. Africans love their football to the point of desperation. To the point of madness.”

African regimes have understood and appropriated this madness so well, which is why football is a potent tool that these unpopular regimes use not only to get a veneer of legitimacy which they would otherwise not have, but also to stifle opposition. I guess it is a two-way street  after all; the people get their “opium” and the politicians get another day to plunder….

Originally posted by Dibussi Tande, January 25, 2006 on his blog at

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