Earlier this month, The National heard from Wondimu Temesgen, an Ethiopian football fan who was recalling the joy that erupted in his country last year when it qualified for the African Cup of Nations (Afcon): “I remember boarding a taxi minibus and getting a ride home free of charge … A lot of public transportation drivers drove people free of charge that day!”
Back then, even in the midst of the pandemic, this feeling will have been felt in 24 African countries. It continues today, as teams start competing.
A look at this year’s participating nations demonstrates the scale of the tournament. Hosted in Cameroon, teams are coming from Algeria to Zimbabwe, spanning both ends of the world’s second largest continent. It includes regional powerhouses, such as Egypt and Nigeria, as well as some of the world’s poorest countries; Malawi, in Group B, has a GDP per capita of $637.
And in a sport dominated by European leagues – whose teams’ success often depends on non-European players, particularly African ones – major international tournaments in other parts of the world fulfil an important role. Afcon is perhaps the most famous example, and while it will never be as big as the Euros, it is worth remembering that it too has a prestigious history as the second oldest continental tournament in football.
Like all of the most important global sporting events, its significance goes beyond sport and into politics, current affairs and history. This is particularly the case today. Covid-19 delayed the competition by a year, and while the resurgence of major spectator events in Africa should be celebrated, it is hard to forget how difficult the road has been, particularly as global vaccine inequality continues to affect the continent. Abroad, old challenges with European leagues rumble on, as multibillion-dollar teams complain that international tournaments interrupt their schedules.
Perhaps most important of all, many of the squads playing this year are coming from countries going through violent turmoil. Sudan is in the middle of deadly protests and political chaos. Ethiopia, once a beacon of syncretism and peace on the continent, is blighted by civil war. As well as Mr Temesgen, The National also heard from Abraha, an ethnic Tigrayan who lives in Amsterdam. He had celebrated his country’s success in 2021. Today, he says he does not think there is “a single Tigrayan who cares about sport right now, let alone the national team”.
Inevitably, footballing joy in Ethiopia will be dampened this year. But sport should still be celebrated as something that has the potential to rise above even the bitterest political divisions. The Middle East and North Africa region, familiar with instability, is proof of this. During the past hugely turbulent 70 years, the region has thrived in Afcon. Egypt won the first two tournaments and Algeria won the most recent. Indeed, the cup would not exist were it not for Abdel Aziz Abdallah Salem, an Egyptian donor who sponsored the first tournament held in Khartoum in 1957.
Afcon might be less glitzy than its European rival, but its huge historic and contemporary significance still makes for one of the world’s most dramatic sporting fixtures, one that shows not just the sporting promise of a diverse continent, but its wider economic and social ones, too. That is why the world should be tuning in over the next month.