If you could ignore the fact that no other confederation on earth pawns off the naming rights to its premier continental championship, and that this year’s AFCON is holding in a country with an active civil war going on, there was actually not much to criticise about the football itself on the opening day of AFCON 2022.
COVID-depleted Burkina Faso gave hosts Cameroon a good game in a stadium which had its capacity limited due to COVID restrictions that applied inside the stadium, but not 500 metres away, or pretty much anywhere else in Central Africa. Yes, I might have predicted the impending death of “COVID Theatre” some weeks ago in this column, but clearly it will not die without a fight.
Looking at the opening ceremony and the opening match through the eyes of my prior iteration as a PR executive however, it was difficult not to roll my eyes and keep on rolling them. The long-standing failure of proper branding, publicity and policy in shaping a coherent 21st century African narrative were once again very evident here. You might argue that it is just football, but I would argue that football is nothing less than an accurate microcosm of the wider African condition. It is not “just football” because the errors that could be picked out apply to so many bigger spaces on the continent.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to the Total Energies Africa Cup of Nations, Cameroon 2022!”
Football is political – Why don’t we get it?
Much song and dance has been made of the alleged European disrespect for Africa’s premier footballing event in the past few weeks, but as usual, very little attention has been paid to how CAF itself manages to pull its own metaphorical trousers down to its ankles. Everything from the awkward position of the tournament in the football calendar, to the choice of a country currently implicated in the systematic murder of hundreds of Anglophone civilians as host, to the COVID-19 restrictions and regulations which do not tally with Cameroon’s own pandemic data, are evidence that African football – and Africa as a whole – still have no idea what role such events play in global positioning and branding.
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What was the reason for a country with an ongoing civil war to have to be the host of AFCON? Is there a shortage of African countries with infrastructure at the level of Cameroon? Predictably, in the lead up to the tournament, news headlines were dominated by talk about terrorism, war and mascots wearing bulletproof vests. Of course many got angry at the adversarial coverage, but the point is, why was the opportunity for adversarial coverage even created by CAF in the first place? What was the reason for this own goal?
In putting together attendance guidelines for a tournament perpetually plagued by crowd apathy and empty stadiums even at the best of times, why was it decided that crowd guidelines that Europe – the continent affected by COVID-19 to the order of 3 or 4 times that of Africa – no longer follows, should be the model for AFCON 2022? In trying to present an image to the corporate world that portrays CAF competitions as marketable and interesting, what useful purpose do the swathes of needlessly empty seats possibly serve? Why do these own goals persist? And then there is the “Total Energies” naming thing.
What’s in a name? Everything!
One of the everlasting narratives surrounding our continent is that it exists in the minds of the world as the mysterious “Dark Continent,” whose entire purpose, value and usefulness revolves exclusively around natural resource extraction. Everyone reading this column has probably seen that map of Africa with its nation states identified not by name, but by primary natural resource export – the oil barrel on what should be Nigeria, the cocoa sack on what should be Cote d’Ivoire, the diamonds on what should be Sierra Leone.
Hopefully everyone reading this also understands why that map is a huge insult and it simply should not exist. For the benefit of those who don’t, allow me to reiterate – Africa’s primary and most important value to the planet lies in the minds of the 1 billion+ people on the continent, not on the natural resources buried underneath its soils. African human beings – people – are what have value, not the Vibranium-rich soils of Wakanda. If we accept this, we can also accept that changing that “Wakanda” narrative involves leaning on the few truly influential media and global platforms we have to emphasise the primacy of African humans over African dirt and the minerals therein.
Imagine we had a big continental sporting event – say a football championship – that is watched around the world. Let’s say it features some of the biggest football stars on the planet like Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Naby Keita. Maybe this footballing event was called the “Africa Cup of Nations” or AFCON for short, and is as disruptive to the global football calendar as it is unignorable. Imagine how we could leverage this unique opportunity for global visibility to push our preferred narrative harping on the importance of African minds and ideas, as against African hydrocarbons and carbon.
Let’s say you could ignore the fact that no other football confederation on earth literally sells the name of its continental national team championship to a business. Hey, the other guys are not broke, and Africa is broke – that’s a fact. It’s just business hey? Well think about what business we could licence as a title sponsor for the AFCON if we wanted to emphasise the fact that African brains and intellectual content are bigger economic opportunities than African soil and dirt. Microsoft? Google? Facebook? Starlink? Coinbase? Heck, maybe even Toyota or Dell? All of these brands evoke images of innovation or at least complex industry.
Which title sponsor would do the exact opposite of this and double down on Africa’s place at the bottom of humanity’s industrial food chain – the continent with 1 billion walking mannequins, whose primary economic purpose is to have ancient carbon compounds sucked out of its soil? ExxonMobil? Shell? DeBeers? Agip? Or maybe Total Energies?
Enjoy the Total Energies Africa Cup of Nations, ladies and gentlemen.