Playing the Francophone Advantage in Africa: A Colonialism Review / Africa Cup of Nations Preview

Number of Cup of Nations championships by country

Part of the brilliance of the Africa Cup of Nations is the way it puts the diverse stories of the continent on vivid display.  Consider, for example, the contrasts in the tournament opener on January 10th when host Angola plays Mali.  Angola’s story is one of hope for the future—having only recently emerged from a 27 year civil war after decades of Portuguese colonialism, Angola is flush with natural resources, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, four glistening new soccer stadiums built by Chinese friends, and immense potential both on and off the pitch.  Mali’s story, in contrast, is more of the past and present—as a descendent of French West Africa ranked as one of the five least developed countries in the world, Mali’s football success depends largely upon players born and/or developed in France.  And while for personal reasons I’ll be rooting for Angola, for purposes of understanding soccer in Africa it strikes me that Mali’s story offers better access to something that has long fascinated me: the ways that historical legacies shape the contemporary African game.

Mali’s Eagles, with only two domestically based players in contrast to 13 playing in France, offer a conspicuous example of a modern football world where global flows combined with the relaxing of FIFA strictures make national team players emblems of history and globalization.  Take Fredi Kanouté, the Sevilla striker who was born in France, played for the French U21 team, made his name in the English Premier League for West Ham and Tottenham, and took advantage of a FIFA rule change in 2004 to represent Mali as the country of his parents.  Or, for American fans, take former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare who was born in Bamako, moved to Paris as a child, then to New York as a teen, played with the Red Storm Arrows of the Super Y League and at the University of Virginia before moving to MLS and then Boulogne of Ligue 1.  Soumare actually wanted to play for the US, but the delay in his citizenship led him to represent Mali—almost certain to be the only Virginia Cavalier on display at the 2010 Cup of Nations.

While these modern soccer stories are decidedly multi-national, they also disproportionately rely on France as a fulcrum.  And although my own experiences in Africa have mostly been in Anglophone and Lusophone countries, the contrasts with Francophone Africa have long provoked the amateur geographer in me.  So as a sort-of 2010 Cup of Nations preview I put together a comparison of the nations that will be on display in Angola this month, which I’ve included as a table at the end of this post.  The results support my suspicions of a noteworthy Francophone advantage—and offer me the chance to speculate about how history and ideology may have put that advantage in play.

The Francophone Advantage

Excluding the hosts as automatic qualifiers, 9 of the 15 teams that qualified for Angola 2010 are from Francophone Africa (or really 8.5 considering that Cameroon is an amalgam of both French and British territories—but for Cup of Nations purposes I’m calling it Francophone because it is my understanding that most of the team is Francophone and the federation web-site is primarily in French).  There are also more French coaches leading teams in the tournament (5) than any other nationality, and most of the highest ranked teams are Francophone—including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Algeria.

Of course, the advantage is not overwhelming; Ghana and Nigeria are both Anglophone and always good, while Egypt is the defending champion relying on primarily domestic players (not coincidently playing in what is arguably Africa’s strongest domestic league).  But particularly with the changing FIFA rules about who players are eligible to represent, it seems plausible to suggest that the current momentum is with the Francophones.  And it seems reasonable to wonder why.

There is, of course, no one answer.  Partially it has to do with the distinctive story of soccer in each country.  Partially it may have to do with the contemporary dominance of the West and the North in African soccer—those parts of the continent happen to be predominantly Francophone.  Partially it may just be the ebb and flow of soccer success—the somewhat random appearance of soccer genius in the persons of a Samuel Eto’o or a Didier Drogba.

But it may also relate to how modern soccer has interacted with the differing versions of colonial (and post-colonial) influence in Africa.  My own introduction to Africa, for example, came through a two year stint in Anglophone Malawi (a third member of Angola and Mali’s Group A in the 2010 Cup of Nations), a densely populated, intensely poor, immensely warm hearted sliver of Southern Africa.  A former British colony, Malawians had adapted many odd Anglophile legacies—the Shakespeare requirement in the secondary school curriculum, the preference for buttoned up three piece suits, the insistence on afternoon tea no matter how hot the equatorial sun, and an obsession with the English Premier League (even in 96-98, exclusively via satellite before the country had its own TV stations).  But I came to think of those as just the idiosyncrasies of post-colonial Africa.

Then several years later I spent my next significant stint in Africa working in Lusophone Angola—where the Portuguese legacy was evident in distinctly different ways including a salacious Carnaval complete with parading transvestites, an affinity for Brazilian telenovelas, and close attention to the Portuguese Liga.  It became somehow normal to visit the huts of desperately poor refugee families on the outskirts of Luanda and find browned newspaper photos of the Benfica or Sporting Lisbon first eleven adorning mud-brick walls.  I was struck bluntly by something that should have been obvious: just as Africa is not just one place, colonialism was not just one thing.

Colonialisms and the Game

While I’m not a historian, my amateur understanding of some contrasts in colonial and post-colonial trajectories—particularly those between the ideologies of France and Britain as the most expansive colonizers—helps me make some sense of soccer in Africa.  As Paul Darby notes in his book Africa, Football, and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism, and Resistance: “Although football developed in a relatively unplanned, haphazard fashion in some of the more remote towns and villages, there can be little doubt that within the larger industrial centres Europeans utilized their hegemonic position to impose Western cultural forms and sports for their own ends.”

The particular ends to which sports were imposed by the French and the British, though inevitably negotiated by Africans themselves, depended on differing ideologies—descendents of which live on in modern policies relevant to the game.  As a generalization, French colonial policy was entwined with the ideology of a “civilizing mission” oriented to assimilation: the idea was “to bring Western civilization to supposedly backwards peoples.”  The French, unlike the British, were more likely to enact direct rule and use French culture as a way to develop colonial citizens—if people adopted the language and the ways of being, they would be French.

Darby argues that football was part of that process: “Given the perceived potential of football in terms of character building and the creation of moral fibre, the French administration was of the opinion that if it could combine such a socializing tool with the European education which many of the local elite had gained then the result would be model French citizens committed to the furtherance of the motherland’s interests in the region.”

A version of that ideology persists in modern France—where immigrants from the former French empire (including many members of Les Blues) are considered officially French without hyphens regardless of race or ethnicity.  In fact, it is difficult to get exact statistics on the proportions of African immigrants and their descendents in modern France because it is illegal for the state to collect census data on ethnicity and race.  While this policy is controversial in that it may tacitly facilitate societal discrimination, at a macro level it may also have facilitated the many opportunities for footballers from Francophone Africa to access the resources and training of the modern European game.

The story of Didier Drogba may be instructive here.  Drogba left his native Abidjan for Paris at the age of five to live with his uncle Michel Goba—travelling around France as Goba played out a middling career in Ligue 2.  Drogba himself was a relatively late-bloomer who fully developed only through opportunities in Ligue 2, not making his big move to Marseille until age 25.  By most accounts Drogba was not the type of precocious talent who would have been signed from the streets of Abidjan at 16—he, like many others, benefitted from the infrastructure of a wealthy country to fully develop his potential.

Didier Drogba

Though I cannot find specific information on how Drogba’s uncle Goba first came to France, it seems quite probable that he benefited from the influence of France’s assimilation ideology on football.  Darby notes that already “by 1938 there were 147 African footballs participating in the French first and second divisions” and that France was long “happy to take players from the colonies on their national team—as with Larbi Ben Barek from Morocco who represented France in the 30’s and 40’s.”  The French “civilizing mission,” while deeply problematic for local cultures, has provided decades of opportunities to footballers such as Michel Goba and Didier Drogba.  It is an amusing post-colonial irony that Drogba would likely not have been leading Chelsea to the Premiership trophy if his family were originally from Anglophone Africa.

The fact that English soccer has only relatively recently embraced African players is also related to particularly British ideologies in its colonial endeavors and its tendency towards indirect rule.  As Darby explains, “Although underpinned by economic objectives almost identical to those of France, the official British administrative approach in Africa was characterized by varying levels of facilitation and supervision within the bounds of pre-colonial authority systems.  This approach…did not deny the autonomy of traditional authority structures or the existence of indigenous social and religious systems, nor did it treat them with the disregard and at times open hostility typical of the Belgian and French colonial administrations.”

This inclination towards separation rather than assimilation, while potentially offering more autonomy for local cultures, meant that any promotion of soccer was done for reasons other than developing British civilization.  Instead, football in British colonies was most often used as part of missionary work promoting “muscular Christianity” and/or in misguided attempts at social control.  Many scholars have noted that football clubs throughout colonial Africa were often key sites for social organization that crafted resistance to colonial rule (see, for example, Alegi’s discussion of the “Africanisation of football” in South Africa in his book Laduma!).  Darby notes this was particularly true in North Africa where “many soccer clubs also acted as centres of anti-colonial sentiment and the promotion of a nationalist tradition” and cites famed Egyptian club El Ahly as a prominent example.

In this light it is worth noting that in contrast to the Francophone representatives in the 2010 Cup of Nations, relatively few of the Anglophone players ply their trade in the UK.  In fact, the non-domestic players on the Malawi and Zambia squads mostly play in South Africa (by my tentative count 10 members of Malawi’s squad play in the South African Premier League along with eight members of the Zambian delegation).

Further, while many players raised and/or trained in France will be representing their African roots (including Kanouté and Drogba), there seem to be few Anglophone equivalents.  In fact, the one potential Malawian example is Tamika Mkandawire—who was born in Malawi to an English mother and Malawian father, but was raised in Warwickshire before playing with Hereford United and Leyton Orient.  But Mkandawire has not been able to play for Malawi because the country does not allow dual citizenship.  (It is also worth noting that the relative absence of British born and/or trained players on African national teams seems less conspicuous for teams from former British colonies in the Caribbean—Trinidad and Tobago along with Jamaica, for example, are often well-stocked with Brits.  I have not researched that contrast—but would be curious to learn more.)

In what could be interpreted as one final insult to the British Empire, there will be no British coaches at Angola 2010 while among the five French coaches one heads Anglophone Zambia.  But then the British did always favor indirect rule—nowadays even for their own national team.

Of course, Francophone Africa has not always dominated the Cup of Nations—defending champion Egypt has the most continental championships with six, followed by Anglophone Ghana with four and kind-of Francophone Cameroon with four.  So the contrasts between French and British colonial / post-colonial ideologies clearly don’t explain everything.  But the nature of the modern game, with its increasingly global labor flows and changing FIFA rules regarding representation, does seem to lend itself to my hypothesis of a contemporary Francophone advantage.  Fortunately, the best test of any footballing hypothesis is still ultimately on the pitch—so let the games begin!

Note: In the below table the FIFA ranking is based on the rankings updated December 16th 2009; the numbers of domestic and non-domestic players is based on the best squad lists I could find as of January 1 – they should be reasonable estimates, but should not be considered exact for the actual players who will be on team rosters during the tournament.

FIFA ranking Population Independence… Coach’s nationality Domestic players Largest non-domestic contingent
Group A
Angola 95 18.5 million from Portugal in 1975 Portuguese 11 4 in Portugal
Mali 47 13 million from France in 1960 Nigerian 2 13 in France
Malawi 99 15 million from the UK in 1964 Malawian 9 10 in South Africa
Algeria 26 35 million from France in 1962 Algerian 9 4 in the UK
Group B
Côte d’Ivoire 16 21 million from France in 1960 Bosnian 1 6 in England
Burkina Faso 49 16 million from France in 1960 Portuguese 2 4 in Germany
Ghana 34 24 million from the UK in 1957 Serbian 3 4 in England
Togo 71 6.6 million from France 1960 French 2 9 in France
Group C
Egypt 24 77 million from the UK in 1922 Egyptian 19 No more than 1 anywhere
Nigeria 22 155 million from the UK in 1960 Nigerian 0 7 in England
Mozambique 72 23 million from Portugual in 1975 Dutch 12 4 in South Africa
Benin 59 9 million from France in 1960 French 7 10 in France
Group D
Cameroon 11 19.5 million from France in 1960 and the UK in 1961 French 0 7 in France
Gabon 48 1.5 million from France in 1960 French 4 10 in France
Zambia 84 13 million from the UK in 1964 French 6 8 in South Africa
Tunisia 53 10.5 million from France in 1956 Tunisian 16 3 in France

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at)

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