In March 1957, Ghana cast off British colonialism and became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve political self-rule. At its independence celebrations, the new prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, offered a hopeful message: “We are going to create our own African personality and identity. It is the only way we can show the world that we are ready for our own battles.”
I was remembering that line last week as I watched the early matches of the Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament of soccer teams representing 24 countries from across the continent. This year’s competition is being hosted by Cameroon; it began on Jan. 9 and runs until Feb. 6. The first Africa Cup of Nations was played in Khartoum, Sudan, in February 1957, a few weeks before Ghana’s independence and on the cusp of a great wave of decolonization. Only three countries — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — competed. South Africa was disqualified after it insisted on fielding a whites-only team.
Today, Afcon, as it is widely known, is the third-largest continental championship in the world, after Europe’s and South America’s. It is carried on major sports satellite services, attracts major advertising sponsorship and trends globally on social media. It includes some of soccer’s greatest players, such as Mohamed Salah of Egypt, and Sadio Mane and Édouard Mendy of Senegal, all of whom play in the English Premier League, the most-watched league in the world.
I’m an African and a soccer fanatic, so it’s doubly exciting to see these star players — many of whom had limited opportunities at home — come back to represent their countries. The tournament takes place in the middle of the European season, and time spent playing in it can mean risking a place in your club squad.
Many are children of African immigrants to Europe and seem to see playing in Afcon as a way to honor their parents and the countries they or their ancestors hail from. (Some teams, like Algeria and Morocco, are made up almost entirely of the children of North African immigrants in Europe.)
Others, like Mr. Mane or Mr. Salah, return to their home countries to take part in matches for which the financial and professional rewards are negligible compared with what they get playing for the most popular and best compensated clubs in the world. But they all do it anyway. It is really an act of solidarity, in a way a hint of a better future.
In Afcon, I see hints of the Africa that Mr. Nkrumah imagined. I feel that through these games, I can glimpse a different continent, one in which we aren’t measuring ourselves against what is happening in Europe or elsewhere, where we celebrate our own achievements — and fight “our own battles,” as it were.
The officials who run the tournament have a spottier record when it comes to solidarity. There have been times when they have made decisions that seem in line with Mr. Nkrumah’s vision, like when apartheid South Africa was disqualified in 1957. Or when in 1996 the newly free South Africa hosted the tournament and Nigeria was disqualified because its military government hanged nine activists for resisting exploitation by international oil companies.
Then there are the times when Afcon reflects postcolonial Africa’s troubles as much as its promise. A persistent disappointment has been seeing national teams coached by Europeans who can’t find work even in the lower tiers of European soccer. And with few exceptions, the tournaments are hosted by brutal dictatorships. (Mr. Nkrumah himself embodied these contradictions. He built up Ghanaian soccer as part of his vision, but also capitalized on that success as he became increasingly authoritarian.)
The current host fits the trend. Cameroon’s dictator of 39 years is 88-year-old Paul Biya, who spends long stretches of time every year in Europe, either in luxury hotels or in luxury hospitals, receiving the kind of medical treatment most Cameroonians can hardly dream of. That’s despite the fact that a civil war has been simmering since 2017. At the tournament’s opening ceremony, local organizers staged what was essentially a huge election rally for Mr. Biya, who rolled around in an armored four-wheel-drive vehicle as the stadium sang: “Paul Biya, our father, president of the nation. Paul Biya always ahead.”
But as is so often the case in contemporary Africa, the more hopeful action is on the ground.
That 1996 tournament from which Nigeria was banned, for example, was a triumph for my native South Africa, which got to celebrate its freedom with a stunning tournament win. In 2012, a ragtag Zambian national squad, rebuilt after a 1993 plane crash killed 18 players along with members of its coaching staff, came up against clear favorite Ivory Coast in the final and snatched a stunning victory after 120 minutes without a goal and nine rounds of penalty kicks.
This year’s tournament has seen its share of drama. It has been fun to watch powerful performances from teams representing small countries, including Gambia, Cape Verde and Malawi. On Tuesday, Comoros, the fourth-smallest country in Africa, defeated four-time Afcon winner Ghana in a 3-2 upset.
Sierra Leone, in particular, has caught my imagination. It has been grouped with mighty Algeria and Ivory Coast. In its first game in the first round, on Jan. 11, Sierra Leone was facing defending champion Algeria, which last December also won the Arab Cup and was chasing a record for most games without a loss by a national team. (Italy holds the record at 37 games; coming into the Sierra Leone match, Algeria stood at 35.) Algeria has Riyad Mahrez, a star at Manchester City, the richest club in the English Premier League, and most of his teammates play in Europe’s top leagues.
Sierra Leone, meanwhile, is ranked 108th by FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, right between Estonia and North Korea. The team’s most recognizable player is Kei Kamara, a 37-year-old journeyman who made a name in Major League Soccer in North America and now plays in Finland.
This was supposed to be easy for Algeria. Instead, plucky Sierra Leone held Algeria to a goalless draw. A 22-year-old Sierra Leonean goalkeeper, Mohamed Nbalie Kamara, who plays for East End Lions in Freetown, the country’s capital, kept out everything the Algerians threw at him. When he was awarded Man of the Match after the game ended, he broke down in tears.
Mr. Kamara’s emotion is understandable on its face — that was a huge achievement for a young, obscure player. But Afcon is important to all its players, even the stars who play in Europe, and to the millions of fans watching, too — across the continent and in the diaspora.
The English historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Watching these Afcon matches, played by these prodigal migrants, international superstars and talented youngsters together, makes Mr. Nkrumah’s vision of the continent seem real, or at least possible.
Sean Jacobs (@_seanjacobs) is a professor of international relations at the New School, the founder and editor of the website Africa Is a Country and the author of a newsletter about soccer.
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