Football, and specifically major sporting events involving national teams, provides opportunities at a global level to display, live, reinforce, and challenge nationalism. Worldwide football is a sport that is capable of arousing powerful, and contradictory emotions that not only have the ability to connect individuals to large-scale entities such as the nation, but also provides a channel for localized expressions of individual identity.
Short history of football in Ghana
Football found its roots in Ghana through a political struggle. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence in 1957. Thus bred the pan-Africanist leanings of the first President Kwame Nkrumah to act as a leader for Africa as a whole, leaving nationalism on the outskirts of the narrow framework created of the nation-state. Nkrumah had a vision of a united Africa that could be achieved through football. Nkrumah’s pan-african agenda, and explicit politicization of football during the late colonial and immediate postcolonial periods has shaped the ongoing history of football in Ghana for better or worse.
At the bare minimum, there is a highly politicized nature to football; you cannot leave the field to your opponent. A short look at the history of the Ghana Premier League (GPL), the top domestic league in Ghana, shows the intense rivalries born through politicization, among other factors. The Kumasi Asante Kotoko and the Accra Hearts of Oak in the GPL are the two biggest clubs and best illustrate the polarity of the domestic league. A common perception bred through history is that the Accra Hearts of Oak is the soccer club of the National Democratic Congress and Kumasi Asante Kotoko that of the New Patriotic Party, the two main political parties in Ghana. The fractious relationship between the two clubs, and league, undermined the desire of Nkrumah to see domestic football used to unite the nation. Worldwide this is the case, whether it is Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, or Liverpool and Manchester United in England, harsh rivalries exist in domestic football that undermine nationalist tendencies.
The history of football in Ghana can help explain why the Ghanaian people can lose faith in nationalistic ideals so quickly. Apart from the historical context, the decline of nationalism among football fans can also be attributed to commercialization, individualism, and globalization.
A football team’s commercial identity is becoming a higher priority than its national one. While this issue is prevalent in international football, it is more evident in domestic football. It is one of the reasons why when you see people wearing jerseys in Ghana they are more often than not from foreign domestic leagues. It is very rare that you see a Black Stars jersey in Ghana, rather you see the streets riddled with Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid jerseys. Why does this matter? It is because the public display of team colors is an expression of loyalty, which has become a characteristic trait of football fandom worldwide. If you wear one of these jerseys, your social status is raised in the eyes of your peers. The commercialization of football is what helps draw supporters to large domestic clubs, making fans forget about their own country. The commercialization and monetization of the GPL is also becoming a major issue in Ghana. The GPL provides a prime example where African elites involve themselves in football only as a way to further enrich themselves. When the ‘Big Men’ take over a team, they take it from the people, the fans. When the fans no longer have football in Ghana, they have to look to a foreign league, which ultimately distances their faith and allegiance to Ghanaian football.
Ghana is a relatively peaceful country and is a shining example of successful democracy in Africa. Citizens have freedom of speech and expression that includes freedom of the press and other media. Using primarily social media, football fans have become increasingly comfortable with expressing their individual ideals, and support of foreign or regional teams. Corruption in Ghanaian football is a glaring problem that also exists in global football. In the GPL, the Big Men use their power to recruit players and often they use ‘age-cheats’ to field their players and sell them. The extensive networks of the Big Men ensure such illegalities, among others, can linger on without punishment. Football corruption is a subset of the general corruption in Ghana, and it is not going unnoticed by the general public. Ghanaian football functions in an unstable climate in terms of the governance of the game, which further strengthens the resolve of aspiring players to leave the country to pursue a career abroad, and for fans to look outside of Ghana for football entertainment.
The outcomes of a more individualistic mindset are made more accessible by the globalization of sport. Globalization has significantly deteriorated the connections between nationalism and football as shown by the international sporting organizations, the frequent emigration of footballers for better contracts, and the worldwide adoption of Western football rules. Sport development is not a top priority in the Ghanaian national budget or in the education system. The low investment in sport decreases the potential for athletes to build their talent domestically. As such, top football talent is lost to more powerful nations in global sport; the muscle drain. The globalization of the football market has made this a possibility, which is depriving Ghana of its most talented players while domestic leagues in rich countries prosper. National football teams and their associated domestic leagues are strongly correlated since the strength of the domestic league can often be a determinant of the strength of the national team. However, there is an ongoing, but sluggish, effort to capture value within Ghana through developing football talent within the country. For example, Right to Dream (RtD) is a not-for-profit charitable football academy that offers “talented, underprivileged children the opportunity to reach their true potential in life and claim a better future for Africa.” While the academy players are ultimately there to develop into professional players, RtD places an important emphasis on education better each individual. RtD is an example of the effort to fight the muscle drain and help contribute to the development of Ghana through football. But apart from RtD, there is only minimal effort to keep football talent within Ghana since the upside to leaving for the players is so tremendous, which results in poor domestic leagues.
Given the history of football in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, it is no surprise that football as the performance of national identity is fading. From the beginning, football in Ghana never had a stronghold position on increasing nationalism. Rather, the focus was on united Africa as a whole and progressing together. While this certainly not a bad thing, it has led to a corrupt football program in Ghana, and added to the issues of globalization, individualism, and commercialization, and their impact on nationalism.