90:00 In Paris: The Growth of African Soccer and Its Impact
By Alex Labidou
PARIS–Paired together on the pitch, Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o would be a dream strikeforce. Pace and power, finesse meeting force, the two would be a nightmare for any team. Together off the pitch, the two forwards are working with the assistance of sneaker brand PUMA, Unicef and their national teams as well as the Ghanaian team to make the dream of a unified Africa a reality.
PUMA has championed the message of African unity and the importance of resource conservation and preserving biodiversity. Throughout the year, the company has innovatively involved its fans to this message through unique art created by Kahinde Wiley and a unity jersey which colors are based from the continents soil mixtures and fabrics.
Bringing together the national teams of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon, the company allowed media and fans alike to hear players’ perspectives on various important issues. It is clear from their opinions how much African soccer has grown and how its growth is affecting social views around the globe.
“I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised by the World Cup,” said Cameroon star forward Eto’o through an interpreter. “Africa is not just barley running, it’s not just ill children and there is an organization. Even if we feel some people don’t want it to go well, I think people will be happily surprised. “
At a press conference in Paris’ suburbs, Eto’o, Drogba, Ghana captain Stephen Appiah, Djimon Honsou, PUMA CEO Jochen Zeitz and Luc Reuter from UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) all discussed the importance of environmental issues and the problems facing Africa. PUMA promises to significantly reduce its carbon footprint within the next five years and the players when asked by the media if whether or not they were repaying a debt to Africa had very interesting responses.
“Bringing awareness to the important issues like AIDS, nutrition and poverty, these are all important,” said Drogba. “For us, it is not a debt but our responsibility as humans.”
To see the social impact that a player like Drogba has had over the past decade is a true realization of how much the continents star athletes have become significant globally. Rigobert Song, the most capped player in Cameroonian history with 135 appearances, remembers his first appearance in the World Cup at 17 and the vast improvements to African soccer since.
“Clearly, it’s not comparable at all. It has grown substantially. It has made real progress, it has really changed,” said Song. “I think if you look at European teams today and a lot of young African players play on those teams. They contribute and are very powerful. “
Song believes that African soccer and its impact will continue to grow in increments and the first African World Cup is a huge step.
“I think Africa has real potential,” said Song. “The World Cup is in Africa and that gives us another opportunity to prove what we can do. Not only in terms of playing but in terms of organizing the event. I think Africa is growing in steps. This is definitely going to be another step. “
During Song’s first appearance in the World Cup in 1994, very few African players were contributing on Europe’s top clubs. Now in almost every one of the top teams there is a significant African player from Michael Essien on Chelsea to Yaya Toure on Barcelona. That point isn’t lost on Eto’o who believes that the opportunity might finally be possible for an African team to win.
“The question we have all the time is if Africa is able to win the World Cup but we’ve covered a lot of ground in the last few years,” said Eto’o. “If we really work hard, then it is possible. Most of the leading players are African and we have to prove that we can do this. “
The very fact that the World Cup is being held in Africa has been encouraging to everyone involved with the process especially Abedi Pele. Pele was very involved in assisting Africa in getting the World Cup and has a very close relationship with FIFA president Sep Blatter. The Ghanaian legend spoke glowingly about finally getting the World Cup in his home continent.
“A lot of people don’t know Africa. Africa is a beautiful place,” said Pele. “We already won U20 World Cup because it was organized in Egypt. There was an advantage. Some people don’t have the trust or belief that we can do it in South Africa but I have that belief. “
The immense pressure for the continent to excel in its World Cup showcase is one that many players believe has strengthened the unity of the continent. In Europe, South America and even in North America, there are huge rivalries that exist between countries. This was very apparent in the US’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico where soda bottles were being launched at Landon Donovan as he positioned himself to take a corner at the Estadio Azteca. Asamoah Gyan, star forward of the Ghanian team believes that there are no rivalries between teams in Africa.
“We, Africans, have a different mentality all together,” said Gyan. “With the teams that we are going to play, we are going to make sure that we are going to have fun. We don’t put pressure on ourselves. African countries are united also; it is a different mentality from the European mentality. All of the African countries will be cheering on all of the African teams. That is one of the most important things.”
For Zeitz, being one of the first major brands to take a vested interest in African football and unity within the continent was very significant and important. The 47-year old was proud to see how much progress was made.
“It has been a very successful partnership,” said Zeitz. “Look at the innovation that we have brought to the world through Africa. We introduced the sleeveless jerseys that caused quite a stir years ago with FIFA. We always used Africa for innovation.”
Hounsou’s involvement in the African Unity Experience was quite simple: to continue to aid in developing a cleaner, safer continent.
“It is my ethical obligation to our planet,” said Hounsou. “Today and for our children in the future generations.”
Towards the end of lengthy Friday afternoon, the players came together in front of approximately 3,500 fans and showed their various talents on the field. Drogba and Eto’o were joined by almost the entire Ivory Coast team as well as Carlos Kameni, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah, Gyan, Andre Ayew to name a few players. The players performed various tricks on the ball and interacted with young fans before playing a brief exhibition match that ended with a 2-1 score. It was a good send off for the teams that will be the most pivotal in the World Cup.
There have been contrasting reports on how South Africa has done in regards to ticket sales, organization and whether or not Africa is being properly represented in both on and off the pitch. Whether or not this concerns are accurate, to the players and those who helped organization this year’s event, there is immense sense of pride involved with this World Cup.
“It should be a fantastic event, I invite you all to be there because it is going to be the best World Cup ever,” said Eto’o.