The First African Nations Cup: Decolonizing the Pitch?

By | January 8th, 2015 | No Comments

Courtesy FIFA Archives

FIFA Archives

The 2015 African Nations Cup begins on January 17 in Equatorial Guinea. The oil-rich dictatorship, a former Spanish colony with a population of 736,000, agreed to host the tournament on short notice after Morocco pulled out due to fears related to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Africa’s most important tournament is organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), a trailblazing pan-Africanist institution born at the dawn of the era of decolonization. Joining the world body, as I’ve written elsewhere, was an honorable, quick, and inexpensive way for newly independent nations to assert their full membership in the international community.

CAF took tangible shape at the 1956 FIFA Congress in Lisbon. There, delegates from Egypt, Sudan, and South Africa convened to draft a constitution and by-laws. The men also decided to organize a continental championship. Ethiopia was also involved in the discussions, but Yidnecatchew Tessema was unable to travel to Lisbon. The African proposal was later sent to FIFA for review and approval (see image at left).

On February 8, 1957, football officials from Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa convened at Khartoum’s Grand Hotel to formally launch CAF. Fred Fell, a white man representing apartheid South Africa, was invited because his country was a member of FIFA and the Africans did not wish to be perceived as undiplomatic. In the meantime, the white South African football association gingerly debated the composition of the national team. However, the authorities Pretoria opposed a mixed selection and the white football establishment did not challenge the policy.

There are conflicting accounts about what happened next. CAF officials stated that they promptly excluded South Africa in a show of unequivocal pan-African solidarity. Fell and white South African football put forward a different story: they claimed they withdrew the team prior to any sanctions due to the team’s impending tour to Europe as well as security concerns linked to the ongoing Suez Crisis. Unfortunately, the minutes of the meeting at CAF were later destroyed in a fire so we may never know the exact truth of the matter. What is certain is that the South African issue did not disappear. To the contrary, the struggle against apartheid in football would become a powerful bond that united CAF and nearly all African nations for three decades.

South Africa’s absence in 1957 meant that only three teams, comprised of amateurs, participated in the inaugural African Nations Cup. Ethiopia, which had been drawn to play against South Africa, received a bye into the final. Egypt defeated hosts Sudan 2–1 and then dispatched Ethiopia 4–0 in the final watched by a crowd of 30,000 at the Stade Municipal. All four goals were scored by striker Mohammed Diab El-Attar “Ad Diba.” “Those were unforgettable matches,” Ad Diba recalled in an interview in 2001. “The success of this championship and its popularity amongst the Sudanese encouraged the African federation to organize a tournament on a biennial basis and to be played in a different country each time,” he said. Ad Diba made history again eleven years later in Addis Ababa, when he refereed the Afcon final between Congo (DRC) and Ghana (see video).

In those early days, CAF brought to life Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of a United States of Africa. At the same time, football provided a rare form of national culture, unity, and pride in postcolonial Africa.

Today, the African Nations Cup has transformed itself into a globalized commercial event with multinational corporate sponsors, matches on satellite television and online, many European coaches, and most players on the sixteen squads employed by European clubs. It is a far cry from 1957. And yet an alluring contradiction has endured: the Afcon showcases Pan-African solidarity while triggering 90-minute nationalism.


Forum on Football in the Middle East

By | November 23rd, 2013 | No Comments

20131123-194419.jpgThe Football Scholars Forum, an international online think tank, convened on November 14 to discuss Football in the Middle East. The conversation focused on a special issue of the academic journal Soccer and Society, edited by Alon Raab and Issam Khalidi. The group began by noting that while football has been a critical force in broader political and cultural developments in the region, there is little institutional support for studying the game in the Middle East.

The ensuing 90-minute discussion demonstrated the value of scholarly collaboration and research on the game.  The group explored a dizzying number of topics and territories, including football as a source of unity and hope and as a site of political and ideological conflict; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; soccerpolitics in Turkey; sport and Islamism; Palestinian and Iraqi Kurdish women’s teams; and football films and poetry.

For a Storify Twitter timeline click here.

Download the mp3 of the session here.

The (Almost) Football War: Algeria-Egypt 2010 World Cup Qualifiers

By | September 4th, 2013 | No Comments

Watch this great 20-minute documentary film on the tension and violence that accompanied the memorable Algeria-Egypt 2010 World Cup qualifiers.

Lots of rare footage captures the perspectives and experiences of the Algerian players and officials in both Cairo and Khartoum. Watch as the mainly France-based Les Fennecs players channel fear, insecurity, and rage into a memorable playoff victory and World Cup qualification. The scenes of joyous celebration among the traveling fans and players in Sudan, as well as the partying in the streets of Algiers are something to behold.

The film provides glimpses of both sides of the fútbol-nationalism coin. On the one hand, the Egyptian hooligans’ love of country expresses itself through hatred of the Algerian “other” and spills over into the vicious attacks on the visiting team’s bus depicted in the film. On the other hand, the Algerians’ patriotic unity propels them to victory against their rivals. Raw and riveting stuff.

Thanks to Mezahi Maher (@MezahiMaher) for the English subtitles!

Death Match for the Egyptian Revolution?

By | February 2nd, 2012 | No Comments

Egypt’s worst-ever soccer disaster: at least 73 people died at a match in Port Said on Wednesday. “This tragedy is not simply a story of a match gone horribly awry,” writes James Dorsey at The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. “It will have important and wide-ranging political ramifications.” (Full post here.) The causes for the tragedy are unclear.

According to the New York Times, “Politicians, fans and Egyptian soccer officials all faulted the police as failing to conduct the standard gate searches to prevent fans from bringing knives, clubs or other weapons into the match.” Did the ultras — hard-core supporters — of home side El Masry and Cairo heavyweights Al Ahly walk into a trap?

Tensions between the ultras were high in the build up to the match. Taunts and scuffles in the terraces halted the game early on. El Masry won 3-1, but as the final whistle blew fans invaded the pitch and chased the Al Ahly players. Egyptian television footage (see above) shows undermanned law enforcement standing passively during the chaos.

“People here are dying, and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war,” said Al Ahly star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika; “Is life this cheap?” He then promptly announced his retirement from the professional game.

“The ultras whether they walked into a trap or initiated the Port Said violence have no doubt again dug themselves into a hole,” Dorsey observes (full post here). “This time round it will be a lot tougher to dig themselves out. They have played into the hands of the military and the police in dealing a lethal blow [to] contentious street politics as opposed to electoral politics and the horse trading associated with it.”

We at Footballiscominghome extend our condolences to the families of the victims.

Additional coverage of the Port Said disaster and its aftermath here.

This just in from Alex Galarza: NPR’s Andy Carvin is curating tweets live from Cairo @acarvin. Osama Diab at The Guardian also has a worthwhile story.

Read David Goldblatt’s “Egypt’s Political Football” here.

Further Reading: Paul Darby, Martin Johnes, Gavin Mellor, eds., Soccer and Disaster: International Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2005).

Props to the Pharoahs!

By | February 4th, 2010 | No Comments


The 2010 African Cup of Nations provided a political appetizer to Africa’s first World Cup.  A stubborn stain remains, but it should not distract from Egypt’s remarkable three consecutive African Nations Cups.

Props to the Pharoahs!  Hassan Shehata had them playing some seriously penetrating football.  They were passing and moving like a Bob Paisley machine — and that’s the highest of all high compliments one can make about a football manager.  Aboutrika, Mido and Zaki, all seemed like yesterday’s men, as precocious and timely talents like Shikabla and Geddo combined with creative mainstays like Hassan, Motaeb and Zidan to persuade the ball into their opponents net.  Gomaa and El Hadary ensured there would be few arguments at the other end.  The Pharoahs will be missed in South Africa, especially when some European adventurers hack their way South in search of the treasure that is avoiding defeat.

And how will Africa’s World Cup qualifiers respond? The Pharoahs provided a clinic, but there were also important lessons to be learned from the performances of Malawi and Zambia. In a word: BELIEVE.

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The Vuvuzela ‘Conspiracy’

By | June 30th, 2009 | 9 Comments

South African defender Matthew Booth decided to film his teammates during the recent Confederations Cup competition. (Remember him? He’s the only white guy in the team who fans greet with a loud “Boooottthhh” whenever he touches the ball and who Spanish reporters, looking for black racism decided was booed by the fans.) Booth, who maintains quite an active Youtube channel, regularly films his teammates, and in the video, above, captured them (and their Brazilian coach Joel Santana) singing on camera in the dressing room before their game against Spain in the first round. Check it out. (Here‘s another example.) It also made me wonder again why South African fans don’t leave the vuvuzelas outside the stadium and do some actual singing? That would not sound only better, but would present an actual, not corporate-induced part of football culture in that country, to visiting fans.


Who robbed the Egyptian players?

By | June 21st, 2009 | 3 Comments

First, The Mail & Guardian, a weekly newspaper in South Africa reported that some members of the Egyptian football team–who play the United States this afternoon in their final match of the first round of the Confederations Cup–had about $2,400 stolen by thieves from their Johannesburg hotel rooms.

This was bad news for the local organizers who were already facing questions about how it would keep players and fans safe during next year’s World Cup in a country with a high crime and murder rate.

The details were vague and a team representative blamed the players: “We are disappointed, but it’s their own fault. There are safes, but they left the money outside. It’s over now. This can happen anywhere. This will not spoil our experience. We are focusing on the tournament and the South Africans are supporting us as though we are their national team.”

Today a Johannesburg tabloid newspaper, Sunday World, reported that police had a different theory: “… some of the Egyptian players brought hookers to their hotel to celebrate their historic win against world champions Italy on Thursday night.

What really happened here.

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