Africa is a continent blessed with more talents than it has ever been able to handle. It is perhaps a gift and a curse as while the talent pool overflows constantly, many are left with unfulfilled dreams because of the sheer volume of talents around. For many of those people, it is all about opportunity. For many others, it is all about means to even happen upon those opportunities. One way or the other, the journey towards reaching those dreams always seems to get complicated; sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes other-human-inflicted and sometimes universe-inflicted.
What is remarkable is that the above can be said for so many different professions and careers. One of those careers that it is widely known to be the case in is football, a sport so powerful as to unify tribes, countries and regions. African football has never been short of world class ambassadors who have shone on the world stage and even garnered the biggest accolades. In the past decade, some players have taken it to new levels and opened new doors in the modern game, doors that most certainly transcend football.
The Vuvuzela-fueled World Cup of 2010, with its Jabulani ball, waving flags and barrage of dance celebrations, ushered in a decade that may someday be reviewed and noted as pivotal for Africa. The emphatic success of that tournament held in South Africa, which many have described as their favourite World Cup tournament ever, showed the world that excellence is not a foreign language to the continent. It had a ripple effect on the growth of the South African league, to begin with. Ghana’s incredible showing throughout the tournament, despite it ending in unfortunate heartbreak, also showed that African teams were once again capable of locking horns with the elite of the sport and coming out unscathed. From then on, a new generation of great ambassadors of African football fully emerged.
From Yaya Touré, who ruled Africa in the first half of the decade and set the English Premier League on fire, and Gyan Asamoah to the likes of Salah, Thomas Partey, Samuel Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen, Mané, Mahrez and Aubameyang; and even Rwanda through its Visit Rwanda initiative, Africa’s ambassadors have carried the continent on their backs and taken Africa to the world. In the English Premier League 2017/2018, four of the five awards for excellence went to African players; Salah with three awards and Boufal with one. Five of the nine Player of the Month awards given that season went to African players. In 2018/2019 of the same league, three Africans shared the Golden Boot as the top scorers of the competition – Mané, Salah and Aubameyang. Aubameyang had previously won the Golden Boot in Germany while also being voted Player of the Year. Also, during the decade, it happened that an African player was named PFA Player of the Year in England for the first time ever; Algerian Riyad Mahrez. Two years later, another African did it again. This time, it was Egyptian Mohamed Salah. To crown it all, on the world stage, we have seen Africans reach 3rd and 4th in the FIFA The Best and Ballon d’Or awards voting – Salah and Mané, continuing the tradition from previous decades.
The achievements above have had a ripple effect on perception of the continent and its potential, at least in the football world. For the first time ever, it does feel like the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) has finally started to get the respect of the worldwide audience. It was heavily highlighted in 2019 when a lot of people made cases for Mané and Mahrez when analysing nominees for global awards, two players who had stellar tournaments. Mané’s final position of 4th in Ballon d’Or voting and Mahrez placing top 10 was enough evidence that AFCON had indeed garnered some weight. This is in sharp contrast to earlier times when the tournament’s stars were constantly overlooked on the global stage. These ambassadors have also opened doors for the next generation of African talents to come through. Players like Mané and Salah have set up academies and/or foundations/charities to ensure more opportunities for African players hoping to go professional and to help in the anti-poverty fight. Both players have also become heavily influential figures in their countries and the world at large, influence that has completely transcended the sport. The retired Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba who reached the twilight of their careers within the decade are also examples of very influential figures who have taken Africa to the world and transcended the sport in influence. There is also the Visit Rwanda initiative mentioned earlier which was set up by the Rwandan government who partnered with globally recognised clubs like Arsenal & PSG to encourage tourism in the country. So far, it has been a resounding success and a great way of giving visibility to the country’s tourism efforts.
Perhaps the biggest effect that these African ambassadors have had on the continent has been to raise worldwide interest in Africa to dizzying heights. Africans have largely dominated a good portion of the digital space, in terms of raw numbers and sparking conversations, and African footballers have played their part in that. Through these footballers, global brands are now constantly taking measures to reach the African digital community. Perhaps the best example is Italian Football Club AS Roma who opened a Nigerian Pidgin English Twitter account and a Swahili account to great success. Lille of France, through Victor Osimhen, engage the Nigerian online community regularly. Club Brugge, through Percy Tau, connect with their South African community as well as the swahili-speaking parts of Africa. Adidas signed a deal with Mohamed Salah in order to tap into his influence. Other clubs and brands have started to realise that the African market is huge and full of a pool of extremely valuable talents and individuals. Clubs like Barcelona and Juventus set up institutions in Africa to try to tap into it and engage those individuals with value to give. Beyond sports, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have also had their interests in Africa piqued and come down to visit, clearly spotting the potential in the African market.
Opportunities abound in Africa and the world is watching now. Africa’s ambassadors in different industries and spaces have played their parts in taking Africa to the global stage and making sure that Africa’s value and potential is both respected and attractive enough to pull them to the continent. Football players such as Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah have led the charge from their own industry through their on-field excellence and off-field efforts and endeavours, becoming figures of great influence, an influence that has now transcended the sport. It remains to be seen how far this influence will go in shaping the future of Africa. For now, the important thing is to recognise the opportunities that abound and tap into it – from the inside and from the outside, as an African based here or as an African in the diaspora or as a foreigner or investor.