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HomeSportsSoccerThe Africa Cup of Nations is something to celebrate, and learn from

The Africa Cup of Nations is something to celebrate, and learn from

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This week, Africa’s most beloved tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, kicked off in Côte d’Ivoire, the western region of the continent where soccer holds the most important place in sport. 

There reside the legendary superpowers of Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana, Algeria and the defending champions of Senegal, who boast some of the most potent talent on the pitch.

But AFCON is not only about stars — it is as much about the fans and lovers of the game which make it so rich and full of life. That is something the world of sports can learn from.

The goal celebrations, enthusiastic supporters and the music alone are reasons to tune in. AFCON, which comes around every two years, is my favourite tournament and I wish it was available to watch on TV like the Euros. 

My friend, Maher Mezahi, is covering the tournament in Abidjan. In a recent article Mezahi wrote that “African football and the Africa Cup of Nations informs my understanding of the African continent.” He writes the tournament unites the continent for four weeks and fans learn about each other’s countries and customs. 

Didier Drogba, one of the most prominent African superstars and a Chelsea FC legend, has used used his country’s love of sport to stop a civil war. As he visits home for the tournament, one can’t help but think about how he used soccer as a vehicle of connection and understanding for his country.

Amplify good

There are ways that we can look at leaders in sport who use love of the game to protect people and amplify good. There aren’t very many places where sport and betterment of society always go hand in hand. But after witnessing the absolute scenes of joy around the world after Morocco became the first African country to advance to the semifinals of the Men’s World Cup in 2022, it doesn’t surprise me that Africa is the global centre of profound love and dedication to the game. 

Since the Canadian men’s soccer team went to that World Cup, interest in men’s soccer has been burgeoning here at home. There is an electricity in the air about sports, perhaps due to women’s professional leagues but also because of the discussions about potential and growth of lesser known sports.

Hockey is a cultural marker in Canada but there is a growing interest in sports more common in different parts of the world. Cricket is an example of a sport that has grown because of different immigrant communities in Canada who love it and bring their wealth of expertise and passion for the game.

I don’t believe that soccer is a lesser-known sport in Canada, but the ways in which soccer is understood and engaged with isn’t at all similar to other countries in the world.

I have covered soccer in Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia and I absolutely do not think that we consider the beautiful game to be a religion like other places, but it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

Soccer fans walk toward a stadium.
Supporters arrive to attend the opening ceremony of the Africa Cup of Nations at the Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium in Ebimpe, Abidjan, on Jan. 13. (AFP via Getty Images)

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly ways in which the women’s game is not as protected or cherished and this includes certain African federations. During the Women’s World Cup last summer it came to light that the Nigeria Football Federation had not paid the players for previous appearances. And similar to other federations all over the world, the women’s teams may not have the same budget allocations or attention as the men’s teams.

But growth and attention women’s soccer is increasing, particularly after the performances of Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco last summer in Australia. 

It’s not always roses and rainbows for the men’s tournament either. AFCON 2022 was held in Cameroon during the pandemic and eight people died and dozens more injured because of reportedly poor crowd control at Yaoundé’s Olembe Stadium when the hosts played Comoros. There had never been a tragedy of that magnitude since AFCON began in 1957. 

This particular tournament is important and reminds us of the ways in which people are deeply intertwined with the sport. At a time when there are cries of desperation from the people of Sudan, and the Congo remains unstable and has millions of displaced persons, AFCON brings some light and some happiness to regions that are overlooked. 

Africa has given us a plethora of incredible players like Sadio Mané (Al Nasser FC), Achraf Hakimi (Paris St.Germain FC), Victor Osimhen (Napoli FC), André Onana (Manchester United FC) and Mo Salah (Liverpool FC) so when soccer goes to Western Africa with the teams, there is a joy and a happiness that electrifies through the Sahara to the Atlas Mountains to the lush Central forests to the beautiful waters surrounding the Horn. There is a connection to sport in the purest sense. There is a belief that soccer is theirs

Defending champions Senegal have already won their first match, but the tournament will see its share of upsets. Ghana lost to Cape Verde and a fan attempted to attack the coach upon his return to the hotel. The drama that unfolds is unparalleled.

Some of the most popular online videos are of player celebrations. I don’t expect Canada to mimic this, but there is a way to continue to learn about soccer if we watch how it is held close and engaged with by other countries and cultures. The beauty of soccer is that while there are only 22 players on the pitch, there is always room for growth and joy around it. 

I am eagerly waiting for more matches and more upsets. In the meantime, I will watch iconic entrances and player dances online. 



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