The road from Khartoum (or what do human rights have to do with the development of football across Africa?)

Last night’s German victory saw the final African team in the World Cup, Algeria, go the way of Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana before them. Indeed Africa as a continent has never had a team reach the semi-finals of a World Cup – their closest chance coming in 2010 in South Africa when a valiant Ghana were robbed of their place through a controversial save by outfield player Luis Suarez.

Football cultures across Africa are varied, vibrant and exciting, but the development of the game across the continent is deeply entwined with human rights.

On February 8th 1957 at the Grand Hotel in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was born. The original members of CAF: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa had all been previously recognised by Fifa but this was the first instance of Africa being recognised as its own footballing zone.

This paved the way for the first Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s biennial tournament, which is now hailed across the world as one of the sport’s great events. Its first incarnation consisted of two games, with Ethiopia getting a bye to the final and eventual winners Egypt beating hosts Sudan in their semi-final. Fast forward almost 60 years, and 2015 will see the tournament held in Morocco, with 16 qualifying teams out the 51 entrants battle it out for Africa’s top footballing prize.

The keen eyed among you will note that when that Khartoum meeting took place, South Africa was under Apartheid - a regime responsible for some of the most abhorrent and sustained human rights abuses in history.

Football in South Africa was imported by British colonial sailors in the late 19th Century. The formation of the all-white Football Association of South Africa (FASA) in 1892 followed by the South African Indian Football Association (SAIFA) in 1903, the South African Bantu Football Association (SABFA) in 1933 and the South African Coloured Football Association (SACFA) in 1936 ensured that the sport remained deeply segregated.

This segregation intensified during the Apartheid era which led to South Africa’s exclusion from the inaugural Africa Cup of Nations and, in 1958, their expulsion from CAF. In August 1960 the all-white FASA was accepted into Fifa with one year to fall into line with Fifa’s non-discriminatory policy.

Not surprisingly this didn’t happen and in September 1961 South Africa was suspended from Fifa, a ban that was not lifted until 1992 with the end of Apartheid. In just 18 years, South Africa went from being banned from participating in Fifa-sanctioned games and tournaments to hosting the footballing world’s flagship event.

We now have to wait at least another four years for an African semi-finalist or finalist but eventually the time will come. The Confederation of African Football represents a footballing ideal that was born around equality and, when it consisted only of four nations, was willing to expel one of its members – cutting its numbers by 25%.

The road from Khartoum in 1957 to South Africa 2010 was a long one, mired in racism and controversy but the football it created is dynamic and will continue to grow from strength to strength. The variation in playing style across nations is phenomenal with Nigeria’s flair and direct approach, the collective play championed by Ghana and the very physical and imposing Ivorians,  to name but a few.

This journey reminds us of a time when international  football’s governing bodies were willing to stand up and refuse to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses – something those in charge of the game today could do well to think on.

Ryan Wilding is one our Media team volunteers, working on sport and human rights.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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