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Africa out of the World Cup: but the continent stands in solidarity

Algeria’s Yacine Brahimi carries the flag for country and continent. Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Five African teams started out at the tournament and now none remain. But, as was the case in previous World Cups, Africans across the continent united behind a range of national teams from Cote d'Ivoire to Algeria, depending on who had the best chance of progressing through the tournament.

Football is huge across the entire continent. And media reform in the 1980s and 1990s played a key role in changing the way fans identify with the teams they support, with a shift from local to international interest. Prior to this, support was very localised with fans mostly identifying with their local clubs. Support is based on the availability of information about a particular club, making it easier for fans to identify with clubs in their geographical sphere or with those that the news media often provided information about.

But beyond club level, feelings of nationalism and media coverage has also ensured that fans identify with their national teams. A surprising phenomenon is that Africans also identify with other African national teams, rallying in support against teams from other continents. This is not necessarily true in other parts of the world for football fans: now that England are out of the World Cup, you won’t see many England fans choosing to support France or Germany.

The World Cup is a prime opportunity for this, with football fans backing the few African teams left in the competition. Cameroon’s progress at the storied 1990 World Cup was widely supported by fans across several African countries and the pain from the extra time loss to England at the quarter final stage was felt by many who weren’t Cameroonian.

The impact of media reform

Widespread media reform in Africa emerged through the General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1994. These agreements encouraged countries to open up their markets, including media markets, to multilateral trade. The media reforms that followed allowed private, foreign and transnational media to enter markets that had been monopolised by state media. This helped change the landscape of football support across the continent particularly as it pertained to support of local football clubs.

Transnational media provided global TV programming to African audiences and it was quite different from local content that existed previously. When it came to football, global media groups like Canal TV and Supersport TV focused their programming on European games.

This had a deep impact, with many African fans increasingly identifying with European football clubs such as Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid that appear regularly on TV. The shirts and stickers of European clubs are ubiquitous in several African streets and club logos are pasted on taxi cabs. But a byproduct is that stadiums at home have been deserted, as fans replaced the stadium with bars and viewing centres where they watch European teams being broadcast.

Supporting the nation and continent

Nevertheless, people have remained loyal to African national teams for several reasons and the spirit of pan-Africanism also persist. First, all national teams play less often than clubs and African national team games are usually covered on national TV by either the state or private channels. This means football fans get the opportunity to watch their national team on television. This is not the case with local clubs that are rarely on television. The fact that national teams play less often also means that even when transnational television show European teams those teams are not shown enough for African fans to increasingly identify with them.

Additionally, African players who play for widely shown European clubs also play for their African national teams and help maintain fan identity with them. Plus, national teams – unlike clubs – represent an object of national pride and so generate patriotic support that local clubs may not have. ​

Feelings of pan-Africanism also persist for an entirely different reason. It is not about nationalism or media reform. Instead, it is about a felling of African solidarity based on shared history of oppression and colonisation and feelings of underdog and unjust decisions against African teams from the 1982 German-Austrian conspiracy against Algeria to the refereeing decisions that eliminated Cameroon in 1998. It is then understandable why African fan identity continues to persist.

African fans will surely demonstrate their identity and support for their national teams or other African national teams at the World Cup in Brazil. Street celebrations, after each victory, should be expected. Importantly, African national teams that go beyond the opening rounds of the World Cup will surely get the support of the wider continent. That will be the pan-African spirit that continues to survive above and beyond transnational media and reform.

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