Nkrumah’s team is going to the World Cup

A short history of football, nation building and the consolidation of pan-African solidarity in 1960s Ghana.

Photo credit: Eliot Elisofon at Accra Stadium, 1959, held at Smithsonian.

Despite coming in for plenty of criticism from European and American journalists, Africa’s high-stakes, winner-takes-all World Cup qualifying system once again threw up an enthralling set of matches. The most remarkable result was Ghana’s whopping 6-1 win over Egypt, where “BaGhana BaGhana” confirmed their tickets to Brazil yesterday in Cairo. There has always been something special about the Black Stars.

What gives football its meaning in England is largely its representative capacity: fans rally around a club, of their city, of their class, seeing the team and the institution as a projection, in many ways, of themselves. This is almost always a regional, not national, phenomenon. Since England was the colonizer rather than the colonized, national representation through football was largely unnecessary. Even today, very few English people identify with the national team. We’ll support them, sure, but we don’t see ourselves in them (thank God).

Much the same dynamic obtains to another colonial power in decline, France, whose players have developed a long-standing tradition of ambivalence towards their national anthem, La Marseillaise. The recent outburst against various figures within the establishment of French football by Les Bleus’ current captain, Dakar-born Patrice Evra, had many causes and doubtless personal scores are being settled through the ensuing row, however it was also symptomatic of the fact that the national team in France are deeply unpopular (though maybe yesterday’s big win with starring roles from the likes of Mamadou Sakho and Paul Pogba will help matters a little).

In West Africa, however, the cultural and historical milieu is reversed. Football is still representative, but the focus of that representation shifts. Football was brought to countries like Nigeria and Ghana, after all, when they weren’t ‘countries,’ but were essentially fiefdoms of the British. It was new. But God was it popular.

That this growth coincided with the growth of national independence and anti-colonial movements changed everything. African football and African nationalism were brothers—twins, even—growing up together. The national team thus became the focal point for, firstly, ‘normal’ Africans, but also for leaders like Amílcar Cabral, who recognized in football a revolutionary potential. In the absence of an established league system, and in the presence of a burgeoning national identity, the African passion for international football was born. It was to be central to nation building and the consolidation of pan-African solidarity.

Nowhere was this more evident than the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Both before and after independence, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President, set about using football as a weapon against the colonial powers. Football in Ghana would be independent, like the nation itself; indeed, it would help build that nation. In the words of the sports sociologist Dr Paul Darby, it was seen as ‘invaluable in building a sense of Ghanainnessthat [the government] felt would transcend all divisions.’

During the 1957 independence celebrations, football was placed front and centre. Sir Stanley Matthews was invited to play in a number of high-profile friendly matches for Accra club Hearts of Oak and was given the title of “Soccerhene,” meaning “King of Soccer,” by Nkrumah’s administration. (It wasn’t the first time African football had expressed its admiration for Matthews—the Sierra Leone club Socro United renamed itself Mighty Blackpool FC in his honor—nor was it the first time Matthews had reciprocated that affection: the England winger toured Africa every summer for 20 years after his retirement, and set up an all black team in Soweto, South Africa during apartheid.) More important, though, were the exploits of the Ghanaian national team.

The Ghana Football Association (GAFA) had set up, with Nkrumah’s express permission, exhibition matches against some of Europe’s premier club and international sides. Between 1958 and 1962, Ghana played against, either at home or abroad, Austria Vienna, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Blackpool, Dynamo and Locomotiv Moscow, West Germany, Real Madrid, and Italy. The latter two matches, against the then European Champions and the then two-time World Cup winners, respectively, were particularly notable. Against Real Madrid, Ghana managed a draw, and against Italy (in Italy), a scarcely believable 2-5 win.

Their performances in competitive cup competitions were even more impressive, and owed much to Nkrumah’s influence. The President personally appointed Charles Gyamfi, the first African footballer to play in Germany, as national coach. That the coach was Ghanaian was crucial; in colonial times, and even at the time of Gyamfi’s appointment, football coaches were always white, never African. This was a political move, a nod to Ghanaian independence. And under him, the team went on to dominate the continent. In 1963, Ghana hosted and won the CAN. They won it again two years later, the players starring, Gyamfi excelling in his new role, and Nkrumah always somewhere in the not too distant background. In fact, the players had direct access to the President. Centre forward Wilberforce Mfum recalled how ‘I could always go to him without even making an appointment,’ and houses were given to the squad for winning in 1965 (the star of that team, Osei Kofi, gave a fascinating interview to the BBC earlier this year). Football was being politicised by Nkrumah, and not without good reason: besides the economic prosperity enjoyed by Ghana post-independence, the sport was about as potent a symbol of national achievement as could be found.

More than narrow nationalism, though, Nkrumah’s political philosophy was one of pan-Africanism and African solidarity. Independence from the colonisers would have to come first, naturally, but thereafter, continental unity was to be sought. As he outlined in one famous speech, ‘Independence now, tomorrow the United States of Africa.’ And, in another, ‘The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the whole continent of Africa!’ The national team was again Nkrumah’s chosen outlet for the expression of his pan-African ideology. He chose to nickname them the Black Stars, both in homage to the great pan-African pioneer Marcus Garvey and to symbolise their role in fostering black, i.e. African, pride. Benjamin Koufie, a former player and manager with the Black Stars, told of how ‘Nkrumah was telling the whole world that there is a continent called Africa which could compete with any other continent in the game of football.’

If African football was to compete, thought Nkrumah, it must however act in concord. One tournament summed that belief up more than any other: the aptly named Kwame Nkrumah Gold Cup. It was a competition between West African national teams, but ‘competition’itself was perhaps the least important thing about it. Rather, it was an enterprise to strengthen the ties between West African nations. One Ghanaian football administrator told fans that they should ditch their petty prejudices and support ‘all the visiting teams as brothers.’ Nkrumah himself, in the aftermath of the 1960 final (a 6-2 win for Ghana against Sierra Leone in the Independence Stadium (again, note the name), Accra), said that the tournament was special ‘not for its intrinsic value, but rather because it is symbolic of the sound foundation upon which we can build the unity of West Africa and of the great value I attach to the success of this movement.’

And there were successes. Take the African boycott of the 1966 World Cup, a pan-African response to the overwhelmingly Eurocentric FIFA, which led to the guaranteed inclusion of at least one African team in World Cups starting from 1970. Victories were hard fought, and by no means total, but Nkrumah’s pan-African politicisation of the game was tangible and it was good for the continent. Like his heroes, Garvey and the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James (another who saw sport and politics as indivisible and who had also seen Nkrumah’s training in Marxist thought), Kwame Nkrumah was a true pioneer.

As the successful boycott shows, however, Nkrumah wasn’t the only African leader who thought in these terms. For countries like Cape Verde and Nigeria, too, were guided towards independence by anti-imperial, pan-African leaders who recognised football as a means of strengthening their nation and continent. In the case of the former, this was Amílcar Cabral; in the latter, it was Nnamdi Azikiwe, or ‘Zik.’

Azikiwe had long been a proponent of government intervention in sport. As early as 1938, he formed Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC), a Lagos-based sports club that, like Nkrumah’s sporting ventures, sought to demonstrate that Africans had the ability to manage and organise their own affairs. Such actions continued into wartime, with Zik conducting two football tours, in 1941 and 1943, to mobilise support for Nigerian independence. Almost 20 years later, when he became the country’s first president, it was a theme to which he would return. Just as there was an Nkrumah Cup, so too would there be an Azikiwe Cup, consisting of annual matches between Nigeria and Ghana. Like his comrade, he saw football as being able to play a part in the reclamation of African sovereignty from the imperialists. That the home of Nigerian football team Enugu Rangers was renovated in 1986 and renamed the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in his honour was an appropriate, if tiny, gesture.

Amílcar Cabral was different. Whereas Nkrumah and Zik went on to become their nation’s first President, Cabral was assassinated before the liberation of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau could be achieved. He was a leader and a pan-Africanist theorist, yes, but he was also a guerrilla: the driving force behind a decade-long liberation struggle. With regards to football, Cabral was different, too. Nkrumah and Zik, as we have seen, co-opted football once in positions of power to further their nationalist and pan-African agenda, and they did it with great success. Cabral, however, was a genuine football fan. As a young agronomy student in Lisbon, he excelled at football. Upon graduation, he was even offered the chance to play for Portuguese titans Boavista and Benfica (imagine if Cabral had joined the likes of Mozambican greats Eusebio and Mario Coluna in the all-conquering Benfica team of the 1960s). Manuel Alegre, the Portuguese poet and politician and then a member of the anti-imperialist Portuguese Communist Party, recalled recently that Cabral’s ‘greatest wish’ was at one time to take up Benfica’s offer, but that the necessity of armed struggle had led him to refuse. The world should be grateful that he did.

Nevertheless, Cabral did leave his mark on West African football. The Amílcar Cabral Cup, again an all-West African affair, serves as a reminder of those liberation struggles fought by Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Cabral, and others; that football on the continent owes as much to these men as it does to any player. For without independence, what would football in Africa look like?

This is not to say that all ran smooth after the chains of colonialism were broken. Just as there were benefits to come from the period’s politicisation of the sport, so too were there drawbacks and failures. In Ghana, particularly, Nkrumah’s interference couldn’t ultimately curb the inevitable tribalism that comes with competition. Pan-African sentiments were expressed, and strengthened, through football, but Ghanaian supporters remained hostile to rival teams. This was hardly Nkrumah’s vision for an independent Ghana. In a study of the rivalry between Ghanaian football clubs Hearts of Oak and Kotoko, Kevin Fridy and Victor Brobbey found that fans of each club were divided along ethnic and political lines that remained even in the post-colonial nation state: Hearts of Oak fans tended to be for one political party, the centre-left National Democratic Congress, and Kotoko fans another, the centre-right New Patriotic Party.

In fact, Nkrumah might be said to have worsened the problem of club tribalism during his time in office, with the football club he established, the Real Republikans, being seen as the party of the establishment rather than the people. As Darby notes, ‘What appears to be forgotten from Nkrumah’s experiences with football… is the capacity of the game to generate unpredictable emotional attachments and counter-hegemonic currents that can breed disunity and threaten those in power.’ Furthermore, because of the personal investment Nkrumah made in football, there was left a vacuum upon his deposition by military coup. Ghanaian football, so dominant in the first part of the 1960s, was to fall into disarray.

Nkrumah, however, showed how much could be achieved by co-opting one of Africa’s premier cultural expressions; others took that lesson, but applied it in an altogether more sinister manner. The chief culprit here was Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator and kleptocrat.

Ultimately, of course, the relationship between competitive sport and pan-Africanism was bound to be somewhat paradoxical; one is predicated on superiority, the other on unity. This doesn’t mean that the two are incompatible, however. Difficulties are had, as with the game between Ghana and Zambia, when sport trumps solidarity. But when the two work in tandem, as with the Nkrumah Gold Cup, or with the 1966 World Cup Boycott, football can serve justice in a way that few other cultural forms can. And though much has been made here of the role of leaders (if not elites), that’s essentially because football is still the sport of the masses.

The last thing to mention about the Black Stars is that they love to sing. Check out this video of the team singing together on the pitch at Cairo International Stadium before their huge game yesterday.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.