The Story Of African Football

With Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia representing Africa at the upcoming World Cup in Russia, Rohan Kaushik takes an in-depth look into the game’s roots in the continent.

By Rohan Kaushik

Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Yaya Toure… these are but a handful of names synonymous with the best footballers on the planet over the last decade. For quite some time now, Africa has been producing a number of world-class footballers and several others who have gone on to ply their trade in different parts of the world. Yet, strangely enough, an African team has never won a World Cup or even come close. Even stranger is the fact that no one really knows much about African football, its national teams and club football. This is however as much a sociological debate as it is a footballing one; perhaps deeper.

It would be a grave injustice to describe the entirety of African football in one article. However, it is high time that Africa started getting its dues and takes its rightful place as one of football’s elite. The journey of Africa deserves to be known.

The Beginning

In a story that is not too different from imperialist sporting origins around the world, African football has its roots in colonial beginnings. There is no definitive moment that recorded when and where African football truly began but most narratives and accounts from the early 20th century tell similar stories. As was the case in many imperialist colonies at the time, Africans were often recruited into European armies to give them greater man power. Additionally, the soldiers had to stay fit and they often introduced fairly popular European sports into their daily routines to do so. It was here that Africa got its first taste of a sport that they would relish and make their own in the due course of time.

While the recruitment of African soldiers was on in full flow, several top statesmen of the erstwhile colonial powers in Europe were drawing borders on a map of Africa. These borders (which would demarcate their territories) were often drawn randomly without any real knowledge of the local geography or culture. Hence, one by one, a lot of the African countries that are well known today started popping up.

The main colonial powers that were in Africa at the time included the likes of France, Portugal, Netherlands and the British Empire. Of all these powers, the one that probably showed the greatest interest in integrating Africans into their sport was France. It was around this time that Baron Pierre De Coubertin had been championing the Olympic movement. So, in order to make a greater mark at international tournaments, France started introducing African players into their sporting teams. The African players stood out for their fitness. Portugal followed suite and it is also said that they were less strict on the natives than their counterparts; so much so that many of them even had off-springs with the local demographic. All this would have a significant bearing on football in the years to come.

Football had also started growing in popularity in Africa with the locals. Varying accounts talk of the natural flair with which the natives approached the game and their unique body and foot movements. It had also become so popular that specific terms describing various footballing actions had become a part of the local lingo. There are accounts of this from the regions in and around Mozambique and even as far south as South Africa. Various football clubs and leagues were also being formed as a result of this new found popularity.

The Birth of the Superstar

With football surging in popularity across the continent, it was only natural that a super star would emerge sooner rather than later. Unsurprisingly, Africa’s first superstar emerged from the French colony of Morocco. Larbi Ben Barek or La Perla Negra (The Black Pearl) was born in Casablanca around World War I and was immediately noticed for his terrific skill on the ball at USM Maroucaine. He was so good that word of his unbelievable talent spread to France and he even turned down the mighty Olympique Marseille the first time around. He was aware that a lot of people were interested in him and waited for his price to go up. When Marseille came calling the second time around, he needed no further invitation. Ben Barek would go on to have a fantastic career with the likes of Marseille and Stade Francais FC. However, it was at Atletico Madrid that he would go on to become a bona fide European superstar and get the nickname Black Pearl. Most notably though, he played for the France national team and not for Morocco.

Larbi Ben Barek.

Another one of Africa’s early superstars, emerged from the French colony of Mali. Salif Keita was born in Bamako in 1946 and it didn’t take long for his finishing skills to be noticed. After making a name for himself in Mali, he was receiving offers from clubs in France. Knowing that the authorities in his country wouldn’t be alright with him playing in France, he escaped undercover. Keita would then go on to become a legendary striker with Saint Etienne banging in goal after goal. He would also go on to play for Marseille, Valencia and Sporting CP.

Salif Keita.

Moving eastward and much further south from Mali, another star was in the making in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira (more well known to fans around the world as the legendary Eusebio) was born in 1942 in the Mozambican capital of Lourenco Marques (known today as Maputo).  He was born to a white Angolan railroad worker and a local Mozambican mother. Eusebio or Black Panther soon made a name for himself at his local club Sporting Lourenco Marques and was courting interest from a lot of quarters. The old lady of Italian football aka Juventus was one of his first suitors. There would be no looking back though for the nimble and fleet-footed forward when Portuguese giants Benfica came calling.


It is said that his signature was hotly contested by the top clubs in Portugal at the time. Eusebio went on to become Benfica’s greatest ever forward and one of Portugal’s greatest (he never played for Mozambique). He even scored 4 goals against North Korea in the 1966 World Cup Quarter Final (when Portugal was down 0-3) in what is now considered as one of the World Cup’s greatest ever comebacks.

The Different Shades of Africa

While Africa was starting to produce some players with outstanding individual ability, their national teams began to make progress. Egypt became the first African country to qualify for the World Cup in 1934. Africa would have to wait for another 36 years before another of its representatives, Morocco, qualified for the World Cup in 1970. In the years that preceded Morocco’s qualification, some important developments were taking place on the political front across the continent.

During the 50s, many of the European colonies in the continent were becoming independent nations, one by one. Quite notably there was a period in which almost all of the French colonies such as Niger and Cameroon gained their independence. This new found spirit of independence led to a clamour for Africa’s very own continental showpiece tournament. Hence, the CAF (Confederation of African Football) was formed in 1957. In the very same year, the first ever ‘African Cup of Nations’ took place in Sudan and Egypt emerged as the inaugural champion.  They would again go on to win this tournament the following year. Egypt has since become one of the most dominant sides in African competition and have also qualified for World Cups.

Another interesting development that was taking place in the 50s was the use of football as a vehicle to unite nations. Although most of Africa’s nations had been drawn up without giving much thought to the local culture, Africa’s new indigenous heads of state saw football as a golden opportunity to stir national pride. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria actively encouraged their countries’ national teams. In time, Ghana and Nigeria would develop a strong rivalry that still exists today. Both West African nations have shared a number of African Cup of Nations between them and have made a strong impact in FIFA tournaments. Nigeria won the Olympics in 1996 beating a strongly favoured Brazilian side. They also put in a stellar showing at the 94’ World Cup. Ghana on the other hand won the FIFA U-20 Youth Championship in 2009; Brazil once again finishing as a runner up to an African side. Ghana’s senior national team or the Black Stars also put in fantastic performances at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups beating much fancied opponents.

Nigeria, 1996 Olympics winners.

Staying in West Africa, another nation that would put Africa on the world map was Cameroon. Cameroon’s clubs were already starting to win competitions at the continental level but it would take a while before their national team would arrive on the international stage. Cameroon qualified for their first world cup in 1982 but it would be at Italy 90’ that they would make their mark. A wily old forward named Roger Milla would take Cameroon to within 8 minutes of a first semi-final appearance for an African National Team. Cameroon’s golden generation would subsequently go on to win an Olympic Gold in 2000 and also make a mark at the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Roger Milla.

Of course, no talk about African football would ever be complete without a mention of the exploits of the powerful North African sides. Algeria’s 1982 adventure in Spain will never be forgotten with a famous win over a strong West German side. Morocco is another team that consistently produces some of the finest talent in the continent. In fact, two of its coastal cities, Ceuta and Melilla share a strong rivalry that ironically plays out in the Segunda Division of Spain. Morocco have consistently produced strong national sides and have reached the knock-out round of the World Cup on a couple of occasions. Another team that has been very strong on the continental front and qualified for World Cups is Tunisia. They are always a force to reckon with in any African Tournament.

Moving south, a nation that has also had its time under the sun is South Africa. During the 90s when the rainbow nation had broken free of Apartheid, sport in the country had truly started taking off. While their Springboks or the Rugby team had won the World Cup in 95’, the country’s football team Bafana Bafana would also make its mark. They would mark their first continental triumph by beating Tunisia (no less) a year later in the final. South Africa would also go on to qualify for World Cups thereafter and even host Africa’s first ever World Cup in 2010!!

South Africa, 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.

Yet sadly, for every success story there is also a story of what might have been. Zaire (Now known as DR Congo) was one of Africa’s dominant sides in the early 70s. They even became the first all-black African side to qualify for a World Cup in 74’. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons they put in a disastrous showing at the World Cup. Their president Mobutu Sese Seko even demanded an explanation from each member for their bad performance. Zaire would never again qualify for the World Cup.

Not far from Zaire, another great tragedy would take place years later that would shock the entire footballing world. In the late 80s, the Zambian national team aka Chippolopolo created waves by thrashing Italy 4-0 in the Olympics.

Fallen Zambia heroes, 1993.

The chief architect of that win was Kalusha Bwalya, one of Africa’s greatest modern day players. A few years later in 1993, the entire Zambian team would be killed in an air crash on the way to a World Cup Qualifier. Kalusha would survive the crash as he didn’t board that unfortunate flight. However, Zambia lost some of its most illustrious names such as Alex Chola and their coach Godfrey Chitalu who is widely regarded as Zambia’s greatest player.

The Club Football Scene

Africa’s premier club competition, the African Champions League was started as the African Champions Cup in 1964. Cameroon’s Oryx Douala were the inaugural winners. Other clubs from Cameroon that have featured prominently on the continental stage include the likes of Canon Yaounde, Tonerre Yaounde and Cottonsport.

Ghana’s Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak have also made their mark in Africa’s premier club competition. Cote D’Ivoire’s ASEC Mimosas also have history with the competition with some of their members, such as Yaya Toure, forming the core of Ivory Coast’s golden generation.

Hearts of Oak, Ghana.

DR Congo’s Tout Puissant Mazembe have also been strong throughout the history of the competition. Most notably, they even reached the finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010, before losing to Italian giants, Inter Milan. Moving north, Egypt’s duo of Zamalek and Al Ahly have a strong record in the competition, whilst Tunisia’s Esperance are one of Africa’s most reputed clubs.

Al Ahly of Egypt.

When it comes to organized club football and top salaries however, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) takes the cake. Clubs such as Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns are among the league’s most supported and finest. The Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates is considered to be one of the most explosive derbies in world football.

Surprisingly though, for all of the league’s glitz and glam, they have just 1 Champions League to show; which was won by Orlando Pirates in 1995. Other than South Africa, the north African clubs of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are considered to be the best pay masters.

Of Superstars and Sub-Culture

With the explosion of European football and football in general on global television and the internet; people are fairly well aware of Africa’s global superstars and their national teams’ exploits at the World Cup. Yet, before this, there would be one man who would single-handedly carry his nation forward. George Weah was born in the small nation of Liberia that was strangely never a colony. In a nation that veered more towards basketball (owing to its American connections), Weah would make the world sit up and take notice.

George Weah.

He would embark on a remarkable journey from Monrovia to Cameroon to France and eventually to Milan and London before finishing his career in the Emirates. At Milan, he would be bestowed with the ultimate honour of FIFA World Player Of The Year; the only African ever to win this prestigious award. Weah was the complete modern day forward and he even used his European money to sponsor his national team’s travel, training camps and World Cup qualification campaigns. Post-retirement, he would contest in the elections of his country on two occasions and eventually become its president – a post he holds today.

Superstars like Weah may be the corner stone of their teams but their play also gave rise to nicknames for teams and players alike. Most African national teams have nicknames that are based on the names of animals. Nigeria are known as the Super Eagles, Lesotho as the Crocodiles, Cameroon as the Indomitable Lions etc. In the same vein, many African players have been nicknamed ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’.

Such is Africa’s popularity in football that it has even filtered down to comic books and animation. The Pan-African comic book Supa Strikas is popular all across the continent and has even spawned off a successful animated series that is telecast globally and been translated into other languages.

This Time For Africa

With the World Cup around the corner, it will be fascinating to see what the competition holds for the future of Africa. African football has come a long way and is now equipped to go toe to toe with the world’s best.

In the recent superhero movie Black Panther, a fictitious East African city of Wakanda is used as a metaphor to describe Africa’s true potential. Until now, Africa has never won a World Cup. Still might Russia ’18 turn out to be Africa’s real life Wakanda?

The answers will be revealed come June.

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