The beautiful game. These three words are among the most dangerously abused words in the English language. The romanticisation of football has given the sport so much power that it can get away with anything, even responsibility for the deaths of people who merely wanted to watch their team play.
It’s this romanticism that makes us turn the other way when the sport, its players and fans are exploited for our entertainment. It’s because of this power that vile, murderous and authoritarian regimes are celebrated when they use their vast financial resources, some of which are obtained through the abuse of human rights, to help a football club win trophies.
It’s because of this power that Gianni Infantino, president of world football governing body Fifa, can say with a straight face that should the World Cup be played every two years instead of the current four, fewer African migrants would die in the Mediterranean Sea trying to make their way to Europe and a better life. His campaign for a biennial global tournament has been heavily criticised as a money-making scheme that puts neither the game nor players’ interests at heart.
Infantino is among many men, including generals and dictators, who have abused the beautiful game for their own wealth and to improve their image. Cameroon’s President Paul Biya is among those men. The 88-year-old has ruled the Central African nation since 1982. Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe is assumed to have had Biya, and others like him, in mind when he wrote of a rapacious political caste for whom a “violent quest for grandeur makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence”. Biya is now under immense pressure from his people to step down, with the country’s economy tanking and a political crisis that has been raging for five years.
The president who promised to be a leader for all Cameroonians has led a regime that has marginalised the English-speaking minority. Instead of listening to their pleas, the government has reacted with force to the protests organised to shine a light on the suffering that the minority group has endured in Cameroon. More than 4 000 people have been killed and half a million displaced in what has come to be known as the Anglophone crisis.
Sleight of hand
The continent has been largely silent about this crisis. It is likely why there hasn’t been vociferous criticism of Cameroon hosting the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). The tournament is part of Biya’s grand plan to win over the youth and paper over the cracks in his regime: a month-long party for the football-obsessed country focuses their attention on the great talent on display rather than his failings.
So far it has worked. Even after the stampede at Olembé Stadium that claimed eight lives, the country’s appetite for the competition remains high. It’s ironic that the stampede happened at the stadium Biya controversially named after himself and spent millions of dollars on, a vanity project to keep his name eternal and help boost his dwindling support. Now, when you search for the stadium online, the uppermost results are reports about the stampede deaths and not its beauty, extravagance, or even the man himself. The state reportedly spent $700 million (R10.8 billion) to build stadiums and improve roads for the Afcon in an extremely expensive public relations exercise.
The stampede removed the plaster Biya was trying to put over a broken bone. Attendance has generally been poor because of high ticket prices that many Cameroonians cannot afford owing to the meagre wages they earn. The low vaccination rate, with only an estimated 3% of the population having been jabbed, has not helped with Covid-19 safety protocols. Only those who are fully vaccinated and can produce a negative polymerase chain reaction test can attend the games.
The Anglophone crisis has also loomed large during the tournament. To avoid embarrassment, the government has limited movement in the English-speaking regions and installed a heavy police and army presence. The situation is so volatile that during the promotion of the Afcon in the region, Mola the mascot wore a bulletproof vest.
Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe used the tired line about football having the power to unite people when asked about the threats the Anglophone crisis posed, and more recently when asked if the Afcon should continue after the death of eight people at a stadium.
Lack of safety
As news of the stampede spread during Cameroon’s 2-1 win over Comoros on 24 January, the show went on inside Olembé Stadium – while people were dying. Some called for the Afcon to be called off, questioning the callousness of continuing. But halting the tournament is a no-go for cash-strapped CAF, which wouldn’t dare touch the goose that lays golden eggs, regardless of how many lives are lost.
A thorough investigation into the cause of the stampede is necessary, and those responsible must be held accountable. Some survivors have already shared their stories. The common thread is that access was delayed because of blocked entrances and when spectators tried to enter through gate S, after a long wait, it was locked. This resulted in a deadly surge when the crowd forced its way into the stadium. Some of those pushing their way in allegedly didn’t have tickets. And a six-year-old boy, among others, died because of this.
This stampede should serve as a reminder to Cameroon to not only focus on policing the stadiums, but also on creating a safe and secure environment. This is the biggest problem with most authoritarian states on the continent: more resources are spent on policing and instilling fear than on public safety.
The power football holds could be harnessed to bring about social change in Cameroon. In Egypt and Algeria, fanatical and organised groups of supporters known as ultras played a key role in the removal of Hosni Mubarak and Abdelaziz Bouteflika. “Football is intrinsically political. Under the right circumstances, it can contribute to radical change,” writes Gabriel Kuhn in Soccer vs. the State.
Kuhn says “football stadiums can also be sites for expressing dissatisfaction with authoritarian regimes. A defeat in football can also become a defeat for an authoritarian ruler. The football stadiums of Africa – like those of other continents – are locations of opposition or counterpower. Football is a medium to execute and resist power.”
Advantage and opportunity
Opportunists have selfishly used the sport to their advantage. It’s time that the true owners of the game reclaim it, reshape it into something more palatable and use the power football has to bring about change. Football cannot and will never change the world on its own; that’s another romantic notion of followers of the game. But in the right hands it can be a vehicle to bring about social change. That, however, would only be a start. Serious work outside the pitch would be needed to ensure that the change lasts.
“At the end of the 1994 World Cup, every child born in Brazil was named Romario, and the turf of the stadium in Los Angeles was sold off like pizza, at $20 a slice. A bit of insanity worthy of a better cause? A primitive and vulgar business? A bag of tricks manipulated by the owners? I’m one of those who believe that football might be all that, but it is also much more: a feast of the eyes that watch it and a joy for the body that plays it,” writes one of the biggest football romantics and critics, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, in Football In Sun and Shadow.
The beautiful game has an ugly side and it needs acknowledging; it is not some magic potion that can cure all ills. Those who abuse the game know this. They know that the hold football has over supporters is fleeting and so they make the most of those times when they have us under their control. It’s time to flip that script by using that power against them. And this includes making harsh decisions, such as boycotting flagrant whitewashing exercises.
During Algeria’s Hirak protests in 2019, the government, in a publicity stunt, cancelled all games except the Algiers derby between USM Alger and MC Alger. Most supporters shunned the event, seeing it for what it was. “Me, personally? I won’t go,” said one staunch USM Alger supporter. “This isn’t the right time to go to the stadium. It is like when you give candy to a baby to pacify it. We will take care of the country first and then go to the stadium.”