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Football, Dr Kwame Nkrumah & The Quest For African Unity

Conor Heffernan tells the story of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, an influential Ghanaian that had a dream of one day uniting Africa as one state.

“The masses of the people of Africa are crying for unity…”- Kwame Nkrumah, Ghanaian Leader from 1951 to 1966

Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, ruled his country with a dream in mind. Some men dream small, others dream big. Nkrumah fell into the second category. Not content with living life just the way it is, Kwame wanted to leave his mark on African politics. His idea? Nkrumah wanted to unite all of Africa under one State. What’s more, he wanted to use football to make it happen.

Politics and football are frequent bedfellows in Africa. Ghanaian football is no different but it comes with a twist. Ghana has a legitimate claim to being one of the fathers of football in post-colonial Africa thanks to the efforts of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Following independence from Great Britain in 1957, Nkrumah’s resource rich Ghana began to make its mark in African Soccerdom. Inspired by the Pan-Africanist writings of Marcus Garvey, Nkrumah was determined to realize Garvey’s dream of a united Africa.

In pursuing this dream, Nkrumah made great use of  football in Africa. In order to give more power to African involvement in football, Nkrumah wanted to boost African football in the international sports scene and gain global recognition of Africa’s new dawn. Nkrumah’s Ghana was the first Sub-Saharan African state to gain independence in 1957 but they were not the last.

The next decade, characterized by the “winds of change”, would see the majority of African states gain their independence. Nkrumah wanted Ghana and Ghanaian sports to be at the forefront of this incredible time. Acting soon after independence, Nkrumah made sure Ghana was affiliated with FIFA. Official FIFA confirmation was to come in 1958 but despite Nkrumah’s eagerness to influence African football, he wasn’t the only one with such a goal.

In 1957, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was established by Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan. The CAF’s main goal was the organization of an African Cup of Nations. Europe had the European Championship and South America had the Copa America. The CAF wanted an African tournament for African football.

After the first African Cup of Nations was held in 1957, Nkrumah became interested in affiliating with the CAF. A shrewd politician, Kwame was aware of the unifying power that football has and soon after 1957, Nkrumah began to look for ways to incorporate his brand of Pan-Africanism with African football.

Unfortunately for Kwame it was a slow process. The CAF was in its initial stages and the day-to-day organization needed for the body took up most of its efforts. Hope came however in 1963, when a decision was made to create an African Clubs Championship. Sensing an opportunity, Nkrumah got behind the project. In 1964, Nkrumah donated 250 guineas for the creation of the African Clubs Championship. The CAF was grateful for the sum, which effectively bankrolled the tournament.

The donation came with a price. Nkrumah gained a larger voice within the CAF and began to spread his ideas of a united Africa amongst his colleagues. His dream for African sport was big. In 1964 he challenged the CAF as follows

“Africa can ill-afford to lag behind in any sphere of life. I therefore charge you to organize Africa’s version of the European Cup for club championship with this trophy.”

The CAF had fallen under Nkrumah’s spell. General Mustapha, then President of CAF responded to Nkrumah in positive terms, declared publicly that the CAF “shall not fail him and the continent”.

Nkrumah soon became a torn in FIFA’s side. For the 1966 World Cup held in England, FIFA allocated one qualifying place for both the CAF and the AFC (the Asian Football Confederation). Prior to this, African and Asian teams had to play in a play-off match against a European team to gain a place at the World Cup. The old system was unfair and FIFA hoped that one qualifying place would be enough to gain favour amongst the newly independent African and Asian States.

One place wasn’t enough for Nkrumah. Along with others, Kwame organized a boycott of all African teams for the FIFA World Cup. It was a stunning show of unity from the Dark Continent and one that we will perhaps never see again. FIFA eventually relented. Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist boycott had succeeded. For the 1970 World Cup one qualifying place was given to Africa and one to Asia. Each continent’s influence at the games has grown as the decades progress.

The 1966 boycott was Nkrumah’s finest moment in the football realm but it also marked a change in the Pan-Africanist’s fortunes. Growing discontent at home regarding Kwame’s authoritarian rule eventually led to his overthrow in Ghana. Football too was at the heart of this story.

Soon after coming to power, Kwame, along with Ohene Djan, one of the most influential organizers in African football, created a Ghanaian football league in 1958 to improve the standard of Ghana’s athletes. The desire to improve Ghana’s football drove the men to unpopular measures.

In the early 1960s a new ‘superclub’ was created called Real Republikans (a name inspired by Real Madrid, then the most dominant team in Europe). Two of the best players from every existing club in Ghana were transferred to Real Republikans with the idea being that this would improve the overall standard of the national team.

Real Republikans were treated like royalty. Players had unlimited access with Nkrumah and had their every wish granted. They played against other teams like Accra Heart of Oaks and Asante Kotoko in league matches but it was done on a non-scoring basis. This wasn’t to last. In 1964 Real Republikans were allowed to compete outright in Ghana’s football league and coolly strolled to the title. They were too strong for the teams in Ghana’s domestic league.

Unsurprisingly this angered the fans of the other teams in Ghana but many accepted it had to be done in the name of nationalism. 10 players from Real Republikans were starting members of Ghana’s first team. In 1963, Ghana won the African Cup of Nations and any annoyance at Kwame’s Real Republikans was forgotten.

When Ghana won the African Cup of Nations once more in 1965, Nkrumah felt invincible. His foreign policy of Pan-Africanism was taking off and his football team was helping him. Pride always comes before the fall. The other Ghanaian teams were still none too pleased with this arrangement but the theme of African nationalism was a pervasive and they accepted it.

The Black Stars had almost all Real Republikan players but their popularity was non-existent. In 1966, Real Republikan’s transfer policies led to the disbandment of the Ghanaian League. No longer happy with losing their best players to Kwame’s ‘superclub’, other club in Ghana’s domestic competition bandied together and boycotted the League. The League collapsed and football fans were furious.

Football fans complained he was authoritarian, socialist and wielded too much power. They weren’t the only ones discontent with the regime. Many of Kwame’s internal actions regarding football were symptomatic of his wider policies at home. Discontent reached fever pitch in 1966, and just ten weeks after the African Cup of Nations victory, Dr. Nkrumah was ousted in a military coup. Real Republikans were disbanded by the new military regime and Ghanaian football went into a relative period of decline.

Kwame Nkrumah had an ambitious dream to unify all of Africa. He saw football as the tool. Internationally Nkrumah did much for the development of the African Game. He helped to fund the African Club Championship and was pivotal in the 1966 World Cup boycott.

Sadly his domestic policies in sport and elsewhere were to be his undoing. Ultimately Kwame failed in his quest for African unity. Football was both his tool and his undoing. The beautiful game yields a lot of power, especially in Africa.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

Featured Image Via Abbie Rowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.