African football can look back proudly on 50 years

Cheryl Roberts

The celebration of 50 years of organised football on the African continent, under the leadership and direction of the Confederation of African Football (Caf), should not go unnoticed.

Caf remains one structure, albeit a sports one, that has been able to achieve pan-African unity and unite a disparate and divided continent.

And this is because Caf has achieved the strength, confidence and global recognition so desperately sought by Africa, while other African structures still struggle to be acknowledged as a political and economic force by world bodies such as the United Nations and World Trade Organisation.

Despite the independence achieved from colonialism, African states have never been acknowledged globally as leaders capable of good, efficient governance. However, it was the dynamic explosion of football under Caf which catapulted Africa onto the world stage.

Africa has remained, since de-colonisation, at the bottom of the economic ladder of world power. With all its natural resources, and because of various external and internal factors, Africa has never been able to emerge out of its dependency position in the world.

Formed in 1957 at the Grand Hotel in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, by founding members Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa, Caf has over the decades not only grown in membership, strength, self-esteem and confidence but it has also, by interacting on the world stage of football, developed an appeal and respect for Africa that no other pan-African organisation has been able to equal.

The winds of change which were sweeping through Africa following the independence of Ghana, baptised African sports leaders with a sense of freedom and belief and pride in themselves as Africans. And nowhere was this pride more evident than in Caf flexing its muscles in the fight against racism, discrimination, oppression and anti-colonial rule.

Despite accepting the whites-only football structure as a member, Caf acted swiftly and expelled Fasa, the South African representative, at a meeting in Rome in 1960 because of Fasa's refusal to have an open membership constitution. Caf also saw through the European-dominated structure and bias of Fifa and agitated for the globalisation of world football, for Fifa structures to be accessible to all member countries and for a more equitable representation of World Cup berths.

Among Caf's biggest achievements for football on the African continent have been the expansion of the bi-annual African Cup of Nations from an eight-team competition to a 16-team format, the introduction of the lucrative club Champions League, the hosting of at least three continental championships, assistance to smaller federations, the involvement of every federation official on a Caf structure.

Within Fifa, Caf has become a powerful continental structure, and nowhere is African unity more evident than within the Fifa forums. It was largely the African lobby and support base which made a pronounced impact when it ended the European domination of the Fifa presidency and brought to the top of world football Joao Havelange, a Brazilian and South American representative. Havelange would remain the Fifa president for 24 years, and Caf would continue to advance the interests of African football on both the playing fields and in the boardrooms.

Another victory for African football was Caf's struggle for additional World Cup berths for Africa. Fifa agreed in 1990 to increase Africa's places from two to five. An equally impressive victory was getting Fifa to rotate host continents for the World Cup finals, effectively globalising the game and giving both developed and developing continents and countries an opportunity to host the world's biggest football event.

Caf has not only bargained for a better positioning of African football on the world stage, its players and national teams in all age groups have also shown the depth, talent and expertise of our footballers and administrators. African teams have featured among the medal holders in international age-group events and have also shone at World Cups.

Post-1990 world football has seen a proliferation of African football talent signed by top teams in lucrative leagues and rich clubs. These players include Liberia's George Weah, Ghana's Abedi Ayew, South Africa's Lucas Radebe and Benni McCarthy, Cameroon's Roger Milla and Samuel Eto'o, Zambia's Kalusha Bwalya, and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba. African football administrators have also exploded onto the scene, among them former Caf President Ydnekatchew Tessema of Ethiopia, Caf President Issa Hayatou from Cameroon, Danny Jordaan of South Africa, Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Mourad Fahmy of Egypt.

Through all the victories though, the challenges have remained, becoming more complex and at times making it difficult to administer the beautiful game throughout all areas and communities of the continent. Africa's poor infrastructure, lack of coordinated development and minimal financial resources have been major hindrances to the development of football.

Caf President Hayatou once remarked in an interview: "This is a difficult job. Africa is a complex society with different nationalities, ethnic and tribal differences, religious differences and all that, and you just have to manage peace, harmony and even good feeling among the different peoples and orientations."

- Chery Roberts is one of Sowetan's Sport Voltage contributes