National team player, national team coach for his country’s only major international triumph, co-founder of his continent’s FIFA confederation, president of that confederation for 15 years, and in many ways the man who set in motion the whole chain of events that led to South Africa becoming the first African nation to host the World Cup: the late Ethiopian visionary Ydnekatchew Tessema deserves greater prominence in the annals of soccer history than he has received.
Tessema’s remarkable story intertwined with deconolisation, the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the battle for respect and opportunities for African soccer in the face of a Eurocentric FIFA.
Tessema, born in 1921, was a hell of a player (scorer of 318 goals in 365 games for Saint-George SA) and a coach: in the latter role, he took his native Ethiopia to their sole major tournament triumph, at the 1962 Africa Cup of Nations.
But it was as an administrator that Tessema left his true imprint on the sport. In 1953, four African nations attended the FIFA Congress for the first time: Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan. At first, FIFA resisted African claims for representation on its Executive Committee; in The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt says “Initially their efforts had been brusquely rebuffed by FIFA’s European majority on the grounds of a barely disguised and contemptuous racism.”
The African nations, though, found support from the Soviet bloc and South America, and it gained representation on the Executive Committee in 1954 (Engineer Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem of Egypt became the first African to sit on it) and earned the right to set up its own FIFA Confederation.
That confederation, the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), was formed at a Constitutional Assembly on 8 February 1957. Tessema (still a player in his mid thirties) was one of the delegates there representing the four countries present: Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa. The Statutes of CAF were drawn from those proposed by Tessema and Sudan’s Abdel Rahim Shaddad. Tessema was voted onto the body’s first executive committee, with Engineer Salem the first president.
Immediately, CAF faced a major crisis, with founding member South Africa under its Apartheid regime stating it could only take either an all-white or all-black team to the first Africa Cup of Nations to be held that year; CAF excluded them from the competition and threw South Africa out of CAF altogether in 1961. It was, according to fellow founding CAF delegate Abdel Halim Mohammed, Tessema’s “firm stand” at CAF meetings that South Africa must field a mixed team that had ensured the confederation was the first international organisation to isolate South Africa in the sporting world.
In 1963, Tessema became the Vice-President of CAF, and led the move to form Africa’s first continental club competition, the African Cup for Champion Clubs. In 1966, Tessema (fluent in French, English and Spanish) joined FIFA’s Executive Committee, at a critical moment for African football in FIFA’s halls of power. As its membership grew, so would — theoretically — its voting power in the halls of FIFA.
FIFA operated under (and still does) a one member, one vote policy at the FIFA Congress: meaning for every African country taken in, the power of its original European members was weakened. Sir Stanley Rous, head of FIFA, put bluntly the fears this brought up for the existing powerbase:
Many people are convinced that it is unrealistic, for example, that a country like England, where the game started and was first organised, or that experienced countries like Italy and France, who have been pillars of FIFA and influential in its problems and in world football affairs for so many years, should have no more than equal voting rights with any of the newly created countries of Africa and Asia.
Writing in the 1980s as that sentiment lingered on, Tessema had an eloquent response for this:
Although we acknowledge the role played by certain continents in the creation of FIFA, its development and their moral, material and financial contributions, we estimate that democratic rule dictates that all rights and duties that form an international organisation should be the same for all. This is why in the framework of legitimacy, and by following a process consistent with the interests of world football and its unity, a progressive equilibrium of the representation in the heart of FIFA and its competition is required.
CAF’s rise in the 1960s, meanwhile, was tightly linked to the wave of pan-Africanism sweeping the continent. National pride became linked to joining the African community of football in membership of CAF. Politics and football were seen as reflections of each other. And this led to an almighty fight between CAF and FIFA over both politics and football as African demands for more power within FIFA reflected the demands of decolonisation politically in the international arena. And Tessema’s fight against racial discrimination in the African continent became a part of this struggle.
It was at this time that CAF fought its battle with FIFA to gain an automatic place for Africa at the World Cup finals. CAF had 30 members by the mid-1960s, but only half a place at the World Cup finals: the winner of the Africa Cup of Nations faced a playoff against the Asian Cup winner to qualify. The costs of competing and the low likelihood of qualification for the World Cup meant many poorer countries did not enter CAF’s premier competition. And this in turn, in a clever sleight of hand by FIFA’s existing European and South American powerbase, threatened their use of their growing membership in FIFA’s sovereign Congress: FIFA decreed that “National Associations which do not take part in two successive World Cups or Olympic tournaments will be stripped of their right to vote at the Congress until they fulfil their obligations in this respect.”
Tessema and CAF’s leadership, with the global voice of Ghana’s first post-independence leader Kwame Nkrumah supporting them, announced a boycott of the 1966 World Cup unless Africa received one full place at future finals. FIFA’s response was to fine the threadbare boycotting nations 5,000 Swiss Francs each. Tessema wrote a furious letter to FIFA pointing out the absurdity that only one World Cup place was awarded to a total of 65 nations in the continents outside Europe and South America. FIFA relented, and Africa was awarded a full place for the 1970 World Cup finals (Morocco becoming the first African nation to play in the World Cup since Egypt in 1934). This was to the dismay of Brain Glanville (still a World Soccer columnist today), who wrote that “It is quite true that football in countries such as the U.S.A. and Ethiopia would be encouraged by World Cup participation, but only at the expense of cheapening the World Cup, a pretty heavy price to pay when this tournament is, or should be, the very zenith of the International game.”
Not coincidentally, politics as well as World Cup positions were dividing CAF and FIFA: led by Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA secretly supported the establishment of a new, second Confederation in Africa, the Southern African Confederation, a South African puppet clearly aimed at giving the Apartheid regime legitimacy, as South Africa had been suspended from FIFA against Rous’ wishes in 1961 under pressure from CAF (FIFA’s Executive Committee had lifted the suspension in 1963 following a visit by Rous to South Africa, only for the FIFA Congress to reimpose it the next year). Led by Tessema, CAF’s delegation threatened to walk out on the FIFA Congress in London in 1966 if FIFA’s leadership backed the reinstatement of South Africa again.
Meanwhile, internally in CAF, Tessema continued to modernise the organisation and expand its role in Africa, even as he faced challenges in a power struggle for CAF leadership. He led a key Organising Committee that led to a restructuring of CAF in 1972, and the same year was elected as its president (a position he would hold until his death in 1987). The continent’s first youth competition was soon instituted, as was an African Cup Winners’ Cup tournament. CAF’s revenue grew, with television and marketing rights to the Africa Cup of Nations profitably sold for the first time in 1982, and it became less reliant on outside support and focused on continental development of the game.
Tessema had worked hard to grow Africa’s standing globally, particularly in the face of intransigent European leadership at FIFA. One key strategy he employed was to cement ties between the African continent and South America, with an African select team appearing at the 1972 Brazilian Independence Cup, for example. Tessema then played a key role in the victory of Brazilian João Havelange over the reactionary Sir Stanley Rous for the FIFA presidency in 1974: for all his later corrupt dealings, that victory by Havelange was crucial for orientating FIFA beyond its previous Northern European pole and led to unprecedented opportunities for African teams.
Notably, rather than Havelange manipulating CAF to gain their support to defeat Rous, it was Tessema who had used the leverage of the forthcoming 1974 election to force Havelange to withdraw Brazil from a 1973 multi-sports festival in South Africa aimed at giving the Apartheid regime international credibility. As Rous himself wrote: “The Brazilians withdrew, I am told on good authority, because Tessema, the president of the African confederation threatened that Mr Havelange would lose the support of the African associations in his fight against me for the presidency of FIFA.”
Paul Darby, in his excellent book Africa, football, and FIFA: politics, colonialism, and resistance, explains Tessema’s sophisticated strategy:
The fact that Tessema was in a position to threaten the withdrawal of African support for Havelange’s presidential challenge illustrates that CAF was not only gaining confidence to assert itself within world football politics but was also beginning to recognise the potential that its voting powers offered the African continent. Indeed, it is clear from African accounts of the 1974 FIFA Congress . . . that the African nations did not see themselves merely as pawns in a power struggle for the control of FIFA. Instead, they saw Havelange as the means through which to achieve a realignment of the distribution of power and privilege within world football which would more adequately reflect their growing stature.
At the same FIFA Congress, a motion by Tessema required the automatic expulsion from FIFA of any country that practiced ‘ethnic, racial and/or religious discrimination in its territory’, thus ending — to the chagrin of Rous — the ambiguity that surrounded South Africa: Rous was still pushing to end their suspension. But Havelange’s victory ended that hope, and under his leadership, South Africa were expelled from FIFA in 1976.
In 1978, the number of World Cup places Africa should hold came up again at FIFA, but this time, it was an easier fight for Tessema to win some numerical justice for Africa: their number of places doubled at the 1982 World Cup to two.
As the years went on, some began to question Tessema’s long tenure, and the divisions between African nations hampered the realisation of the Pan-African dreams of the 1960s. But Tessema remained a force for the good of the sport until his death in 1987: he was a lone voice at keeping alcohol and tobacco sponsorship out of African football, and he warned against the growing trend of young African talent leaving for European shores. He spelled out the latter concern clearly in the 1980s:
African football must make a choice! Either we keep our players in Africa with the will power of reaching one day the top of the international competitions and restore African people a dignity that they long for; or we let our best elements leave their countries, thus remaining the eternal suppliers of raw material to the premium countries, and renounce, in this way, to any ambition. When the rich countries take away from us, also by naturalisation, our best elements, we should not expect any chivalrous behaviour on their part to help African football.
One wonders what Tessema would make of African football today: a World Cup host, with numerous world stars, but still struggling for domestic development in the game.
Shortly before his death, Tessema, according to Darby, “reiterated his belief that CAF must continue to struggle to ensure that Africa procured within FIFA, ‘the place which is ours by right and which would allow us to play the role of a real respected partner and not that of a puppet’.”
Few have done more to propel Africa towards its proper place in world soccer than Tessema.
References: Darby, Africa, Football, and FIFA; Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round; Le Sueur, The Decolonization Reader; Mangan, Europe, sport, world: shaping global societies; Rous, Football Worlds. Photos courtesy of The Tessemas website.