Football in colonial Africa

The common image of African football is of a dusty field, a rag ball, rickety wooden goalposts, and a bunch of shoeless kids playing for fun. There is an element of truth to this cliché because Africa’s uneven poverty does not facilitate great equipment and, as in the rest of the world, people are prepared to improvise to get a game going. But the early history of the game suggests that African football is more complex and sophisticated. It is a history of money, racism, tactics and magic. In Africa, in fact, the story of football is not just a game: encoded within it is all the complexity of Africa’s colonial experience.

Football, Africa, Colonial


Like many other colonial imports, football was a European invention, but one popularized through the grassroots enthusiasm and organization of Africans. Some missionaries promoted the game because they believed it would instil the values of sobriety, obedience, selflessness and co-operation. Other teams were founded to satisfy the demand from Africans who had seen, and imitated, Europeans playing the game. In any case, Africans soon gained effective control of these teams or, after chafing against European interference, set up independent alternatives.

Teams were followed by local football associations. South African towns had associations by the 1910s, other colonies developed them later. These associations administered various competitions, paid dues to the municipal authorities for their services, and hired bands to entertain matchday crowds. Their rise was linked to another colonial import, literacy, because associations had to arrange matches and arbitrate disputes in writing, and file their accounts with the government.

As this level of organization suggests, Africans did not simply take to football for the sheer joy of the game. There were also more hard-nosed reasons for football’s success. Football was rapidly monetised and provided a useful supplementary income for players. Teams negotiated hard over appearance fees, transport allowances and prize money. In friendly matches it was common for the winning side to take 60% of the prize fund, and the losers 40%.

This commercialization was often frowned upon by Europeans. In the late-1930s, a missionary in Northern Rhodesia complained that “all the star teams play for money”. The same missionary also witnessed a match in which the visitors bet on themselves to win and confidently spent their stake in the local beer hall: “unfortunately they lost and the match ended in a free fight in which spectators joined”. In urban areas, football clubs were often combined with mutual aid societies and played a valuable social role. Migrant workers, for example, used football clubs to replace the material and social support they had left behind in their rural homes.

Obuasi Kotoko Football Club

The style of football played in colonial Africa shifted with fashion, experience and external influence. There is a common belief that Africans excelled at stylish, attacking football, and relied on ostentatious displays of individual skill. There is some truth to this, but there was a definite tension between this kind of showy, individualistic football, and the discipline and teamwork of a winning formula.

Africans were not completely isolated from wider trends in football, and were quick to adopt new techniques and strategies. Tours of South Africa by Motherwell in the 1930s were a popular sensation, and their tight passing game and collective ethos inspired a tactical revolution among local teams. In 1950s Brazzaville, a French coach rebelled against the prevailing British style, and his team dominated the league with short passes and man-marking. And an upstart team in Ghana during WWII promised more vaguely that its ‘tactics’ would defeat the ‘dribbling’ of their rivals. African football was itself a symbol of modernity, and Africans strove to keep the game up to date – but there was a distinctly African twist.


The organizers of Ghana 2008 are keen to project the modernity of African football: sponsorship by a booming mobile phone network; the multinational advertising billboards; and the interior shots of gleaming stadia as the players wait for kick-off. But there is nonetheless a historical truth behind older media sensationalism about chicken sacrifice and witchdoctors in African international football. The game was rapidly assimilated into local religious practices, and the practical business of winning matches often given a supernatural boost. Talismans, prayers and medicines were a valid – and expensive – part of match preparations. Team names like the Cape Coast Mighty Dwarves reflected aspects of local mythology. In Northern Rhodesia, dead ancestors continued to influence the world of the living, and football skills apparently transferred into the afterlife.

One Copperbelt team was reported in the 1950s to be making midnight pleas at the grave of a famous player: “Pump this football for us we beg you and make it light for our goalkeeper and heavy for theirs”. The resort to spiritual tactics appalled some Europeans. Missionaries were especially keen to promote their more saintly teams, but the popularity of the game forced them to compromise with local beliefs. Priests in Congo-Brazzaville were outraged at the decision of a Catholic mission team to intimidate its opponents by renaming itself The Black Devils, and agreed to the name change only after players and fans began to boycott mass.

Ivory Coast Witchdoctor


This outline of the early history of football in Africa is perhaps too positive. The game had a darker side: football reflected both the injustices of colonialism, and the internal divisions of African societies. Football in Africa first reflected the fundamental racial divide of colonialism. In settler societies like South Africa teams and associations were strictly segregated on colour lines. And because football was a popular childhood game, it exposed Africans to inequality from an early age. It was a revelation for Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of independent Algeria, that his new school had two football teams: one French, one Arab. But it is also true that football transcended some racial barriers, if only temporarily and for small numbers of people. In Northern Rhodesia, for example, white spectators were a common presence at African matches.

But the barrier between black and white was not the only division in African societies, or in African football. Teams often reflected identities based on religion and class. In Obuasi, Ghana, Muslims played in a separate Mahommedans team. In Congo Brazzaville, there were separate football teams for the clerks and manual workers of colonial enterprises. And football also reflected growing ethnic rivalries within multi-ethnic states.

For example, in 1942 the New Britons, a team from Tarkwa in SW Ghana, resolved at their AGM “to crush down in this year all the Kotoko Teams”. Kotoko, a common team name, meant porcupine and was also symbol of Asante nationhood. The club motto of Asante Kotoko was “Thousand Killed, Thousand Comes”. This referred to the military strength of the defeated Asante Empire, now a constituent part of Britain’s Gold Coast colony. But the motto was also a measure of Asante’s political tenacity and was later associated with the National Liberation Movement – an Asante rival to the multi-ethnic nationalist party that led Ghana to independence. By September 1942, the Mighty Britons had defeated four Kotokos, scoring 14 goals and conceding just four. Football, then, was a very public and ritualised expression of divided African loyalties: and such divisions would play a significant role in Africa’s post-colonial instability.

Asante Kotoko Football Club

Colonial Society

African football was also affected by the structural inequalities of colonial society, and African football associations encountered the same constraints as non-sporting organizations. Europeans were suspicious of activities and organizations they did not control, and often sought to restrict their activities or co-opt their leadership. Missionaries were hostile to the perceived immorality of players and boisterous fans in independent teams. And efforts by Africans to retain and extend their footballing autonomy were ultimately limited by their political and economic weakness. Teams often relied on grants for equipment and uniforms. Stadia and playing fields were normally owned by the municipal authorities – and these were under European control.

African footballers and organizers thus had limited leeway to promote their own interests. One Ghanaian team from a mining town complained that it was impossible to fulfil their fixtures on days when the mines team played, and poached their players. And in Congo-Brazzaville, Catholic missionaries took so much of the gate receipts that the players lamented that they “did not even have lemonade money”. The lack of political power also precluded wider pan-African organisation. The first international club championship in 1950, between teams from Belgian Congo and South Africa, was organised by European officials to generate favourable propaganda for colonialism.

Football was also used to achieve and display social status in competitive colonial society. This could be the prestige of personal skill, as for the Ghanaian Ekow Glenland, who told the FA he was “commonly known as Kimpo the Devil Boy”. Zulu players were given praise-names previously reserved for warriors and chiefs.

Other nicknames were drawn from the movies (Fu Manchu) or consumer culture (Buick), and demonstrate the extent to which colonial social status had become inseparable from symbols of western affluence. Football also bestowed prestige by association. The patron of Asante Kotoko was none other than Agyeman Prempeh II – Prempeh was the Asantehene (the Asante king), an office abolished then later reinstated by the British. A financial patron of a football team could also transfer his loyalties into local political support, and often interfered in tactical matters.

The early history of African football is complex and fascinating, and much of the story has yet to be uncovered. But the more historians discover, the more certain it becomes that in colonial Africa, football was never just a game.

Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville
Peter Alegi, ‘Playing to the Gallery’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35, 2002

Full references for this article are available at

Photo credits: adritzz; Lord…Jack Lord; michael_hughes

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