The sports industry is and has become one of the largest and well-financed industries to date. Its success is accounted for by a gush of sponsorships from reputable brands, and loyal sportsmanship that contributes to the growth and sustainability of the industry.
According to the Business Research Company, in 2020, the global sports market generated a whopping $388.3 billion in revenue which increased at a compound annual growth rate of 3.4% since 2015.
Despite the rise in revenue of the sports industry, somehow, the African sports system fails in its ability to rise to prominence. The industry boasts players of African descent signed to international sports teams; many of which are descendants of nations such as Nigeria, the Congos (The Republic and DRC), Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Senegal, to name a few.
So this begs the question: Why are many African athletes who play in international teams progressing in the industry as opposed to those who represent their birth nations failing to attain championship status? Is this failure in part due to the lack of resources or failed infrastructure and leadership within the African sports system?
My stance is primarily based on my observation and research of the football (soccer) industry. This article uses this context to extend to the global view of the sports industry to hopefully initiate dialogue in support of reparation for the future of young African athletes.
Controversy in African sports
In 2018, controversy arose when the French Soccer National Team “Les Bleus” championed the FIFA World Cup. While the country claims victory, several fans contested that this win was granted by the African players who make the majority of the French National Team. France was subsequently termed “the last African team”—the only representation of Africa who graced the stadium at the final. This moment was victorious for many African supporters.
In sports such as soccer, a close analysis of the teams highlights a strong lineup encompassing the majority of African players. While for some this may not appear as a problem at face value (where some may denounce existing racial inequality in sportsmanship), if we’re to study the historical facts of these teams, its dominance portrays an ironclad irony from a colonial perspective.
This all boils down to roots—where players who represent such teams have bloodlines in countries that were subjugated to colonial supremacy. The very country that oppressed their nation and took from them, is the same using those talented players and claiming ownership for their own gain.
Therefore, if sports teams are to claim victory boldly while sporting their success from the sweat of the very men whose ancestral land they stole, then perhaps it’s about time that reparation is done to reinstitute the wealth and privilege stolen from colonial lands. The unfortunate misfortune of several African players remains that the nationality that represents their European or other foreign status is only valid if their extraordinary talents convert victories. This leads to the perpetual loss of identity that we see today across the diaspora.
On the other hand, we’ve witnessed many shortfalls in our own lineup. As Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu‘s article published in The Conversation, highlights, “Africa’s participation in the tournament (FIFA Football World Cup) is characterized by numerous challenges, unexpected victories, and dramatic failures. Indeed, the performance on the field has provided great moments of excitement, athleticism, talent, and skill – but also moments of tactical naivety and indiscipline.”
The ugly truth of the African sports system
While we can boast that international sports teams have claimed the talent of several of our African star athletes, how much of the blame falls solely on those international sports associations and how much of that responsibility falls on African leaders in the sports industry for lack of a better system that secures both aspiring athletes and professional athletes?
Many Africans today leave their country and find refuge in foreign countries. While there are many reasons for it, one of these is the search for better opportunities; which leads to several individuals benefiting from those resources and making headway in their careers.
In the bracket of sports, several African athletes who find refuge in those foreign countries are exempted from the struggle that many other Africans in their homelands do. And the only way to showcase their talent is to set aside their ancestral roots to represent their foreign country in international sports.
So why have these opportunities been lacking? Many talented, gifted aspiring athletes fight tooth-and-nail to make it through, yet, while the dreams are many, the opportunities are few. Indeed we can argue that comparing sports in developing countries to sports in developed countries can be somewhat flawed, but at the rate that the sports industry has grown, surely it does not lack in resources.
And if the African system is to have any claim in its players, then perhaps reconstruction of its infrastructure is due. Before one can claim rights, can we say that the system has been done right by its people?
Learning from international sports systems
To create successful athletes, it has to start from the foundation. This quickly raises the question: Are young athletes supported throughout their developmental stage to be well-seasoned athletes? If not, then does it make sense to claim ownership of talent we (as Africans) did not harness? I dare say so because the proof is in the pudding; take for instance the American soccer draft system.
American sports system vs African sports system
The US and Canadian soccer draft system has a system called Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft that promotes players who have excelled through college football.
This means that soccer athletes have the opportunity to not only pursue a professional athletic career but are also afforded the opportunity to develop themselves educationally. Additionally, specific systems are readily available for students to be drafted through the American college sports system, which includes the NCAA and the NAIA. From this, it’s evident that the infrastructure set in place by these associations is well established so that it not only meets the goals of the organization but also ensures that athletes are holistically established.
In doing so, they’re creating educated and well-seasoned athletes—the greatest advantage of this is should an athlete not succeed in being drafted, they have an educational background to fall back on and an athletic resume to continue to pursue the sport in lower divisions or abroad.
In contrast, many African soccer athletes are forced to fend for themselves and pursue an athletic career without adequate grounding and direction to breakthrough.
If the African continent is to break ground and establish itself in the sports industry, reformation, reconstruction, and restoration need to take place.
As the sports industry continues to grow, that brings competition for many athletes and the process of selecting the “cream of the crop” becomes more strenuous as more athletes pursue the dream of one day playing on those international fields. Still, the responsibility falls upon the African sports system to do better for its people. As much as we can argue that Africa has been historically disadvantaged, but to what extent are we going to sustain the victim mentality and instead work together to forge a better life for future generations.
If we forge a better alliance within the African sports system, then however optimistic one may sound, through joint forces, the disadvantage towards African athletes in international sportsmanship may just be our answered prayer for change.
It takes active participation in reform conversations, strategic planning, and collective participation to see the future that we (as Africans) deserve. Will Africa rise to the occasion?