IN a few hours a rather dramatic World Cup 2018 will end in Russia.
Africa had a mixed outing. None of its representatives this year – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal – made it past the first round, into the round of 16, or the quarter-finals.
As the laments poured about what many African football fans consider a disappointing show, and questions were asked why the continent fared worse this time than the recent past World Cups, I asked myself a different question: “How do, especially poor, African children today get to learn to be footballers and eventually play at the World Cup?”
A couple of Africans have made the journey from poverty to global football stardom. Few of them more remarkable than Liberia’s George Weah. He grew up in Clara Town, a poor suburb of the capital Monrovia, and played football in West Point, Liberia’s biggest informal settlement.
THEN IT WAS PRESIDENT WEAH
He made his way through the humble fare of Liberia football, and eventually got to star for Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s. Then he moved to England later and played for Chelsea and then Manchester City.
Weah is the only African to be FIFA’s world player of the year or to have won the Ballon d’Or for Europe’s best player. He is still the one and only player ever to hold the African, European and World crowns for the best footballer at the same time in 1995.
Then, of course, last December he won the Liberian presidential election, and became the West African nation’s leader. Weah thus became the first ever World Footballer of the Year to become president of a country.
Weah would not have played his way out of poverty and a difficult childhood, without a patch of grass to dribble the ball on.
But as Africa rapidly urbanises, everyday one reads stories of city and town parks, and school playgrounds, grabbed or legally purchased by developers to meet the soaring demand for housing.
If you watch sports TV in Africa, you will notice that the advertisements that run during English Premier League – and indeed during the World Cup – of stars who rose Weah-like from humble beginnings, they show them playing football as children not on grass fields, but street alleys in tough neighbourhoods.
It would seem as if the dream of a small patch of field for the less privileged children in our African urban areas has died.
But the shrinking of spaces where inhabitants of this fair planet can make a life, and enrich others in the process, is happening beyond football fields and green parks.
The same process that is taking them away in the cities, is also killing forests that we need for our rain, the habitats for wildlife, and the water sources for us all.
In the wildlands, these precious spaces are being mined, grabbed or degazetted to supply the food, fuel, and housing needs of Africa growing populations.
Like the children in the cities and towns who are losing their playing fields and street alleys where they played football, wildlife and nature are losing the spaces where they thrived.
In the process we are breaking an important link between sports and nature that we had made. This link is well illustrated by the fact that we named more than half the national football teams (and other sports clubs) in the world after wildlife!
CLUBS AND WILDLIFE
In Africa, it is nearly three quarters: from Benin’s The Squirrels, Nigeria’s Super Eagles, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks, DR Congo’s The Leopards, Ivory Coast’s The Elephants, Rwanda’s Wasps, Senegal’s The Lions of Teranga, Sudan’s Nile Crocodiles, down to Uganda’s The Cranes (She Cranes for the women’s side), to name a few.
It’s hard to imagine how Africa would have looked like these past weeks during the World Cup, if all the TV screens were blank. Or, better, if not a single African footballer was at the tournament.
For African wildlife, which is being lost at an alarming rate, such a future is already part reality. However, if we don’t find the balance that enables us to conserve nature, and the system that supports our livelihoods collapses, we might have a crisis that makes it difficult for us to have African football teams at future World Cups. And we might never have another Weah story.
For the continent, those lost school playing fields, the yards in poor neighbourhoods, the habitats for wildlife in the countrysides, are a big part of what makes the World Cup special. We should never forget that. We must never get to a place where we can’t hear the chorus about The Lions of Teranga.
-Kaddu Sebunya is the President of the African Wildlife Foundation.