One nation under a flag

African special - Observations on football

Pele once predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. He was almost right, because Nigeria, the self-styled Super Eagles, won the Olympic football final in Atlanta in 1996, defeating first Brazil and then, in the final, a very accomplished Argentinian side. Today, one struggles to think of a top European club that does not have an African in its squad. If you include African-born players - such as Patrick Vieira of Arsenal, who is from Senegal but represents France, or Claude Makelele of Chelsea, who plays for France via Congo - as well as those more generally from the African diaspora, such as Pele himself or Arsenal's Sol Campbell, who was born in London, there is no other sport, or indeed area of life (except possibly some genres of pop music), where black people are so dominant.

"Football is a game of the poor, a game of the masses," says Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, "which is why it is increasingly a game of colour: whites, after all, make up less than a fifth of the world's population. The point about football is that you don't need any money, just a bit of space and plenty of time to practise. In poor countries, young boys don't have any money and, in the absence of other opportunities, lots of time. This is what gives the game its subversive quality."

So why has no African team ever progressed beyond the World Cup quarter-final, as Cameroon did in 1990 and Senegal in 2002?

There are two possible reasons. The first is organisational: the infrastructure and funds simply do not exist in most African countries to support strong domestic leagues. Ambitious and able young players are quickly signed up by European clubs, disrupting the local leagues and transporting the players into the world of the football mercenary, moving from club to club and country to country. Clubs bring African boys to live in Europe when they are as young as 14. But what happens if they do not succeed? What happens when they find themselves doubly displaced - from the country in which they have been brought to live, as well as from the country they left behind?

The second reason is more complex and, has, I think, something to do with the post-colonial nation state itself. It is often said that, in countries of many different languages and conflicting ethnicities and tribal identities, such as Nigeria, football can act as a source of unity, a common language in which all the people are articulate. But the consistent underachievement of a multi-regional state such as Spain suggests that football seldom unifies in the way that people hope.

Loyalty to the tribal group in Africa or to the region in Spain is often greater than it is to the nation state, especially if that state is created by conquest and outside interference. And if a team is not unified, as the talented Cameroonians clearly were not at the last World Cup, it won't win.

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly