It is the ultimate accolade: Didier Drogba, centre-forward for Chelsea and the Ivory Coast, has had a beer named after him in his home country. The “Drogba”, served in litre bottles, is almost as strong as its namesake.
The footballers of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Angola are being fêted this week for helping their countries qualify for their first World Cup. Presidents are giving them villas. Agents are texting them. The players enjoy it, knowing it is not ever thus. African internationals are used to abuse at home.
This African generation is the product of the recent offshoring of the continent’s football. Some have barely lived in Africa. Drogba was sent to France by his parents aged five, a few of Angola’s players grew up in Portugal and many other Africans joined European clubs in adolescence. Emmanuel Adebayor, a forward for Togo, arrived in Metz aged 15. About half the Ivorian squad were children when they entered the famous ASEC academy in Abidjan, with its grass pitches like billiard tables, where they played barefoot against older boys wearing football boots. Produced for export, they left for Europe before local fans had ever seen them play. By 20, they were earning in a month what the average African makes in a lifetime.
This doesn’t mean it was fun. Matthew Amoah, Ghana’s striker, told me about emigrating to the Netherlands at 16: “It was a bit difficult because you left your parents and your brothers and sisters. I maybe called once a week, and in the beginning I was alone in a hotel.” Many players spent years being lonely and some were ripped off by agents.
Fifa, the world football authority, has since forbidden clubs from signing foreign players before they are 18, so this African generation should remain a one-off. However, the experience has already shaped these players. For a start, they are less ethnically minded than most of their compatriots. Ivory Coast and Togo are riven along ethnic lines, yet the players in the national team get along, with the Ivorians even trying to set an example of brotherhood to their nation. Plonking people in some frozen European town at a tender age does tend to make them less parochial.
The ethnic differences within the teams remain, but they are now more easily surmounted. Amoah says: “A lot of the time we had two groups in the team. Now we still have groups off the field, but on the field we are a family.”
If the distance to their team-mates has shortened, the gap with the fans has grown. Few other human relationships exemplify the global wealth divide as starkly. When an African team loses, or a player showing up in a “posh-posh” car underperforms, the fans resent it. Even Laurent Pokou, the former Ivorian great, grumbles: “What upsets me today is to see certain players with no respect for flag or national team. Kids today just want to earn money like Kolo Toure and others.”
This is hard on today’s players, who often pay for their own flights to come home to play for their country, take the abuse, and are subsequently dropped by their European clubs for having been away. Amoah says: “In Ghana when you lose, the fans say, ‘You have to change the squad.’” That, says his team-mate Abubakari Yakubu, is why Ghana used 49 players in its World Cup qualifying matches and never had a settled team.
How bad the abuse can get was demonstrated in Cameroon this week. When Cameroon played Egypt last Saturday, Pierre Wome missed a late penalty that would have sent Cameroon to the World Cup. Even on television, the screams from the stands were audible. Police sneaked Wome to the airport for a flight back to his club, Inter Milan, after which the fun really began. Fans sacked various houses on the false assumption they were Wome’s, plus a hairdressing salon belonging to one of his friends, who had foolishly decorated it in Inter’s colours. In Cameroon, Wome will be associated all his life with that penalty.
Most African fans probably think they should be so lucky to have his problems. The World Cup will finish in frustration for most African supporters, but not for the players. For them, the tournament is a jobs fair that could assure the survival of their extended families. “Anything can happen there,” says Amoah, who hopes to move up from the modest Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem. “If a player plays good, he can find a big club.”
Meanwhile, the World Cup could have even greater consequences for their countries. All but Ghana are in a mess: Angola is a kleptocracy emerging from a 27-year civil war, Ivory Coast is close to civil war and Togo is ruled by a dictator.
The presidents hope that good results will solidify their grips on office. Those of us who bet £20 quid on the Ivory Coast to win the World Cup at odds of 500-1 have our own dreams. But the lasting impact could be on national consciousness. Andreas Mehler, director of the Institute for African Affairs in Hamburg, notes that some African countries are “virtual states” with only borders and a flag to provide any unity. In parts of Angola and Ivory Coast, in particular, the state barely exists. People there don’t feel Angolan or Ivorian. In Togo, people have almost no experience of their country being mentioned, let alone lauded, in the world’s media.
Now football is creating national pride like little else before. It’s what the Togolese musician Emanuel Fofone meant when he said after his country’s qualification: “For once, Togo is the head and not the tail.” It’s what Angola’s president José Eduardo dos Santos, 26 years in office, meant when he said: “The victory shows we are as capable as other peoples.” If that’s what mere qualification does, the World Cup could be quite something.