Africa on the Field

Back to Africa

By Nelson De Oliveira

Edited by June Zhang


The 2010 FIFA World Cup began on June 11th, 2010 in South Africa, marking the first time in history that the crown jewel of football was held in the African continent. As the tournament unfolded, all eyes were turned to South Africa to see whether they could successfully host the tournament.  While the organizers of the tournament were closely watching the South African government, the real question for the majority of the world was whether or not an African team would be able to make a good run during the competition.  South Africa exceeded the world’s expectations, hosting the third-most-attended tournament in World Cup history. Although African teams did not have a strong presence in the later rounds of the tournament, Africa made huge strides in showing the world that they have become a strong potential in the football sphere.

Early History

The game of football was introduced to Africa through the means of traders, settlers, missionaries, and European troops during the two World Wars.  North, West, and Central Africa were heavily influenced by the French which explains why the African Football Confederation is known as the Confédération Africaine de Football, or CAF.  Although CAF was originally formed in 1957, the struggles for independence from colonialism throughout the post World War II era left little time for football to develop.  The game only began to flourish after the widespread independence of Africa from European rule in the 1960’s. [1]

The original founding members of CAF were Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Africa.  Representatives from each nation met in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, with the intentions of forming a controlling body for football in the African continent and creating an international tournament.[2] Egypt was by far the most experienced nation internationally, having been the sole African representative in the 1920 Olympic Games football tournament.  The Egyptians also participated in the 1934 World Cup, though they went out rather quickly after losing to Hungary in the first round.[3]

Despite a sparse record internationally, the newly founded CAF quickly began organizing the first African Nations’ Cup.  It was held in Sudan as an anniversary of its independence from Anglo-French control the previous year.  The 1957 tournament was highlighted by controversy, as it initiated a long-term uneasiness between South Africa and the rest of the continent.  South Africa refused to send a multi-racial team to the tournament, stating that their team would be either all black or all white in accordance with apartheid.  The other three nations were appalled at the statement and promptly forbade South Africa from participating.[4]

This led to a rather unusual tournament, where Ethiopia received a bye into the final, playing the winner of the match between Sudan and Egypt.  International experience showed, as Egypt won both of their matches to lift the first ever African Nations’ Cup.  Egypt retained the cup when they hosted the second tournament in 1959 with the same three teams competing.

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Eusebio and the 1960’s

The 1960’s was a decade filled with political change.  As a result, more independent African nations joined CAF and the African Nations’ Cup expanded into a more recognized tournament.  However, these political changes also caused instability, forcing the next tournament to wait until 1962.  Ethiopia hosted it and won, defeating the other nine African nations participating.  The continued expansion of CAF led to its strained relationship with FIFA.  Up until 1970, FIFA allowed only one team from both Africa and Asia to participate in the World Cup.  The African nations found this extremely unfair and disrespectful, and so, decided to boycott the 1966 World Cup.

Although there wasn’t an African nation in the 1966 World Cup, there were various African players.  These players came from African countries that did not yet have sovereignty, so they played for their colonizers.  Though these players were competing for European nations, their achievements still mirrored the strength of their true homes in Africa.  Perhaps the greatest African player during the colonial times was Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, a Mozambique-born player who played for Portugal.

Eusébio was born to a poor family in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique on January 25th, 1942.[5] He quickly discovered his passion for football as a boy, playing daily on the streets of his hometown.  To him, football was more than just a game – it was the only thing that mattered.  In an interview conducted in 2002, Eusébio recounts, “I was the only child in the family who did not finish school.  I was born for football.  My mother used to tell me off because I would stop on the way to school to play football with my friends.”[6]

Although the enthusiasm for playing was widespread amongst all boys, the difference between Eusébio and the others was his incredible speed and deadly finishing. With such talent, it was inevitable that the best clubs would bid for his signature.  Yet Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony and had no professional clubs.  All clubs were amateur, and the largest ones had ties to the more popular football clubs in Portugal.  In his teenage years Eusébio played for Sporting Lourenco Marques, an offshoot of Sporting Clube de Portugal in Lisbon.

Despite having only amateur status, the Mozambique clubs often played against the top Portuguese teams when they traveled to Mozambique for exhibition games.  Eusébio played in such a match at the tender age of 17, scoring two goals against Belenenses, the most recent winners of the Portuguese Cup.[7] His form was noticed by Jose Carlos Bauer, the coach of Sao Paulo who was also playing exhibition matches with his team in Mozambique.  Sao Paulo’s tour continued to Lisbon, where Bauer met with Bela Guttman, the famous coach of Sport Lisboa e Benfica.  Bauer mentioned the African prodigy to Guttman, who was so intrigued that within a week flew to Lourenco Marques to personally see Eusébio play.  Shortly afterwards Benfica purchased Eusébio for ₤7500, an astronomical sum at the time for an African player.[8]

Upon his arrival in Lisbon, Eusébio found himself wrapped in controversy before he even managed to play his first game.  Benfica’s arch rival, Sporting Clube de Portugal, insisted that they had first choice in signing Eusébio, as he had played for their feeder club in Lourenco Marques.  Sporting eventually lost the argument due to the amateur status of Mozambique football, but Eusébio’s tremendous success throughout his career has ensured that even today, fans of Sporting believe the African star was “kidnapped” from them.[9]

Although Eusébio would turn out to be a phenomenon, he still had everything to prove when he came to Portugal in 1961.  Playing for Benfica in the early 1960’s was the modern day equivalent of playing for Manchester United, Real Madrid, or Barcelona.  When Eusébio arrived, the team had just won its first European Cup, the crown jewel of club football.  There was enormous pressure placed on the 18-year old. Controversy surrounding his signing only added fuel to the flame. Yet Eusébio displayed incredible maturity by not only coping with the pressure, but rising above it.  Through his own words:

With my personality and age at the time, I knew I had to show my class as a

player, not to be afraid and to work hard…I thought to myself: ‘I will play in this

team because I know I am as good as, if not better, than most of those players.’

However I didn’t say this to anyone, I just knew it in my head I could play better

than them and be in the team.[10]

This tremendous confidence was apparent from the beginning of Eusébio’s professional career, when he scored a goal in his debut.  His instant success led to his immediate inclusion in the Portuguese national team, where he earned his first cap a mere two weeks after his first match for Benfica.[11] His form for Benfica was superseded by none, as he helped lead the club to its second straight European Cup final, scoring two goals in a 5-3 rout over Real Madrid in 1962.[12]

The next thirteen seasons saw much of the same success, with Eusébio winning the Portuguese League with Benfica in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1975.  Additionally, Eusébio was the top scorer in the Portuguese League from 1964 to 1968 and again in 1973, scoring an astounding 317 goals in 301 appearances for Benfica.  Other personal honors were bestowed upon the Mozambique striker, including winning the European Golden Boot in the 1967-1968 and 1972-1973 seasons, scoring 42 and 40 goals, respectively.  The highest individual honor was presented to Eusébio in 1965, when he won the Golden Ball as Europe’s best footballer.[13]

Although he won everything there is to win on a club level, Eusébio never played international football for his native Mozambique.  A fierce war for independence raged on until Portugal finally granted Mozambique sovereignty in 1975.  The Mozambique football association was not established until 1976 and the first tournament that the team qualified for wasn’t until 1986.[14] By that point Eusébio was long past his prime and unable to play for the Mozambique national team.

Eusébio’s appearances for the Portuguese national team, most notably in the 1966 World Cup, were followed by those in Mozambique and throughout Africa. Other African players flocked to Portugal in hopes of achieving recognition and the opportunity to showcase their athleticism just like Eusébio had. Before the arrival of Eusébio, the Portuguese national team was not known for playing great football.  In fact, until 1960, Portugal had an overall record of 31-58-19.[15] The contributions of Eusébio as well as other Mozambique-born players such as Mario Coluna, Vicente Lucas, and Hilário Rosário da Conceição helped elevate the quality of Portuguese football. In fact, without these players it’s likely that Portugal would never have even qualified for the tournament.[16] Eusébio’s nine goals for Portugal won him the golden boot for best striker in the tournament.  In a game known for team play, Eusébio singlehandedly brought Portugal to the semi-finals by scoring 4 goals in a 5-3 quarter-final win over North Korea after being down 3-0 early on.[17]

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Emergence of sub-Saharan Africa

All in all, the boycott of the 1966 World Cup proved to be fruitful.  An executive committee stated their objective of “the cause of making the World Championship a real world manifestation far from any exclusivism”.[18] This boycott got the attention of FIFA, and for the next tournament one berth was allocated just for Africa.

Following the 1966 World Cup, CAF continued to expand as more and more independent nations formed football associations.  A great deal of these came from sub-Saharan Africa, with Ghana leading the pack in 1957.  The Ghanaian Black Stars joined FIFA in 1958, and although they were eliminated in the 1962 African Nation’s Cup, they hosted and won the event in 1963.  In addition, Ghana became the first nation to represent sub-Saharan Africa in the 1964 Olympics, where they reached the quarterfinals.[19] Other sub-Saharan nations also emerged as contenders, such as Nigeria which today boasts the largest amount of registered players of any African Confederation.[20] The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, also elevated its standard of play when it beat Ghana 1-0 in the final of the 1968 African Nation’s Cup.

Unfortunately, the rise of sub-Saharan Africa as a football power shed light on the uneasy tension between Northern (predominantly Arab) Africa and Southern Africa.


This rift, which predated European intervention, was mainly caused by the notion that the more affluent Arab nations have often exploited their southern neighbors.[21] This tension was highlighted in Morocco at the 1988 African Nations’ Cup.  The semifinals pitted two Northern African teams versus two from sub-Saharan Africa.  Cameroon played against the hosts Morocco while Nigeria took on Algeria. Both of these matches are remembered for the violence that arose as a result of the games. Racist chants from the predominantly Arab crowd plagued the black African teams, although the players did rise above it as both Cameroon and Nigeria made it to the final.  However, the racism experienced within Africa’s own competition led to questions about the legitimacy of pan-African unity.  As a reporter attending the game described:

This tournament threatens the dreams of men who live to promote African unity – men whose banner outside a Rabat hotel reads: Welcome to our African brethren.  And the threat is exacerbated by Arab newspapers’ suggesting Morocco ‘never again play black Africans’.[22]

Yet the question of African unity stretches beyond just Northern and sub-Saharan Africa.  Within Northern Africa there lies a great rivalry between Egypt and Algeria – one that extends far beyond mere football matches.

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The Hate Match – Egypt vs. Algeria

Like many great sporting rivalries, the contention between Egypt and Algeria is rooted in politics.  Relations between Egypt and Algeria have been stressed since the push for Algerian independence from France in the 1950’s.  The Egyptians seemed apathetic to their neighbor’s cause and the refusal to help has been a point of concern ever since.[23] The relationship between the two nations was put to the ultimate test when they were scheduled to play a two-legged playoff to determine which country would be going to the 1990 FIFA World Cup.  The first match was played in Algeria, and ended scoreless after the full 90 minutes.  This put pressure onto Egypt which had to win the second match in order to qualify, while Algeria would go through on a non-goalless tie due to the away-goals rule.

However, instead of witnessing a sporting match between football players, the game became an interactive battle with fans, coaches, and players attacking each other.  An Egyptian player, Ayman Younis, described the outcome as:

“It was an incredible atmosphere. The stadium was full five hours before the game,” recalls Younis. “The Algeria team was full of stars and on the pitch it was very crazy; 11 fights between every player. Everybody forgot what the coaches had to say and just fought instead. It was a battle, not a football match. It was like our war against Israel in 1973.”[24]

According to a firsthand account of the match, over 90,000 people were already at the stadium at 10:30 AM despite a match kickoff of 3:00 PM.[25] Eventually more than a 100,000 people packed the Egyptian stadium to witness the deciding game.  Egypt scored early and held on to win 1-0 and go through to Italia ’90.  Immediately after the referee blew the final whistle he was surrounded by protesting Algerian players.  Incredibly, it took the referee a full eight minutes to get off the pitch. The Algerians believed the referee was biased and they remained so unhappy with the result that the players and coaching staff alike began to throw objects into the crowd.[26]

The worst was not yet over, as the Algerians continued their protests into the night. Landor Belloumi, an Algerian former player and legend went to an extreme when he interrupted the post-match Egyptian celebration and blinded the Egyptian team doctor.  He was immediately arrested, and although his release to Algeria was eventually negotiated, he was unable to leave the country for the next 20 years.[27]

The Interpol warrant for Belloumi’s arrest was finally dropped in April of 2009.[28] It’s ironic that only a few months after, Egypt and Algeria were once again drawn into a World Cup Qualifier match.  Although many measures were taken to not repeat the same mistakes, violence once again erupted between fans and players.

Violence is a horrible and unnecessary component of the beautiful game. Thus, it would be unfair to dwell on the uglier aspect of African football when there are so many wonderful examples of selflessness and team unity.  One such example arose just a few years after the “hate match” in the form of a great African player, George Weah, whose generosity and passion for his country knew no limits.

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George Weah and the 1990’s

George Weah was born on October 1st, 1966 in the Clara Town slum of Monrovia, Liberia.[29] His birth came just a few months after Eusébio had represented Africa on the world’s largest stage, albeit while playing for Portugal.  Like Eusébio, Weah was born to a country with virtually no football history.  However, Liberia was fundamentally different from Mozambique in that it had been independent since its formation in 1847.  It was originally started as an American colony to promote re-integration of former slaves back into Africa.[30] Despite its comparatively long history of independence, it never managed to produce a competitive international football team.

George Weah in Action

Although the Liberian football team never lit up in the international football world, George Weah was a shining star across all aspects of the game.  He moved at a young age to AS Monaco in 1988, playing in the French League under renowned manager Arsene Wenger. Weah lead Monaco to win the French Cup in 1991. From there he moved on to Paris Saint Germain, where he played from 1992 to 1995, winning the French League in 1994.  However, it was after he left France for Italy that his career really stood out from the rest.  Moving to AC Milan in 1995 brought Weah the Italian League in 1996 and 1999.  He was also the top scorer in the UEFA Champions League in the 1994-1995 season.[31] His greatest accomplishments mirror those of Eusébio when he was named both European Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995.  Weah holds the distinction of being the only African player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year (it should be noted that this award only came into existence after 1991 so only players after that year were eligible).  In addition to the awards given from FIFA and UEFA, Weah was also named African Player of the Year by CAF in 1989, 1994, and 1995.  Perhaps his greatest achievement was winning African Player of the Century, placing him in the same company as Pele and Johann Cruyff, who won the South American and European Player of the Century, respectively.[32]

He remains the only player to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year and not play in the World Cup Finals.  In his own words,

If there’s a dream I have never realized, it’s going to the World Cup. But I hope one day Liberia will go, even if I don’t. Maybe it was never meant to be. I think I deserved it, but that’s life. If I had really wanted to go I could have changed my nationality, but I decided to stay with Liberia.[33]

However, the reason that George Weah remains so loved, particularly in Liberia, is more due to his character than to his exploits on the pitch.  When he won the African Player of the Year in 1989, and again when he won every award in 1995, Weah immediately returned to Liberia to celebrate with his countrymen. Liberia’s failure to reach the World Cup Finals is in no part due to Weah’s lack of effort, as he has done everything, from play to coach to personally fund the team’s travel expenses.  More recently, Weah has taken up a political stance in Liberia, attempting to use his popularity as a player to help his poverty-stricken nation.[34]

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Future Outlook

George Weah’s dream of one day seeing his country compete in the World Cup is shared by many all across the African continent.  To date, there have been 13 African teams in various World Cup Finals: Egypt (1934, 1990), Morocco (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998), Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo (1974), Tunisia (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006), Algeria (1982, 1986, 2010), Cameroon (1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010), Nigeria (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010), South Africa (1998, 2002, 2010), Senegal (2002), Angola (2006), Ivory Coast (2006, 2010), Ghana (2006, 2010), and Togo (2006).  Of these teams, only two teams have progressed to the quarterfinals; Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.[35]

It is apparent that past performances by African teams in the World Cup did not indicate a drastic change for the 2010 tournament. African teams were sparsely represented, with only Ghana moving forward past the knockout rounds. However, the fact that the World Cup was hosted by the African continent gave extra motivation for the participating African teams. Africa’s commitment and successful hospitality of soccer teams from all over world demonstrated it’s passion for the sport. The 2010 World Cup paved the way for the future success of African football, mirroring the dedication of great African players and teams of the past.


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How to cite this article: Nelson De Oliveira, “Africa on the Field,” Edited and Updated by June Zhang (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)).


[1] Murray, Bill. The World’s Game A HISTORY OF SOCCER (Illinois History of Sports). New York: University of Illinois, 1998. Print, 137

[2] Murray, 137

[3] Murray, 143

[4] Murray, 138

[5] Taylor, Matthew. “Global Players? Football, Migration and Globalization, c. 1930-2000.” Historical Social Research 31.1 (2006): 7-30. Print, 18

[6] Armstrong, Gary. “The Migration of the Black Panther: An Interview with Eusebio of Mozambique and Portugal.” Football in Africa. Comp. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 247-68. Print, 254

[7] Soares, Pedro M. “Influência da Ideia de Sucesso na Prática Desportiva dos Jovens: O Caso da Associação Académica de Coimbra – Organismo Autónomo de Futebol.” Comp. Salomé Marivoet. Estudo Geral: Faculdade de Ciências do Desporto e Educação Física. Universidade de Coimbra, 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2009,  12

[8] Armstrong, 251

[9] Darby, Paul. “Migração para Portugal de jogadores de futebol africanos: recurso colonial e neocolonial.” Trans. Rui Cabral. Análise Social XLI.179 (2006): 417-33. Print, 421

[10] Armstrong, 260

[11] Soares, 12

[12] Armstrong, 252

[13] Taylor, 18

[14] “ – Mozambique: FIFA Goal Programme.” – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

[15] Coelho, João N. “‘On the Border’ Some notes on football and national identity in Portugal.” Fanatics!: power, identity, and fandom in football. By Adam Brown. New York: Routledge, 1998. 158-70. Print, 167

[16] Darby, 422

[17] Armstrong, 252

[18] Darby, Paul. Africa, Football and FIFA Politics, Colonialism and Resistance (Sport in the Global Society). New York: Routledge, 2002. Print, 52

[19] Murray, 140

[20] Murray, 140

[21] Sugden, John Peter. FIFA and the contest for world football who rules the people’s game? Cambridge, UK: Polity, Blackwell, 1998. Print, 130

[22] Hughes, R., ‘African Cup Explodes into Violence’, Sunday Times, 27 March 1988, p. A32

[23] “Egypt against Algeria revives some bitter memories (part one), by James Montague – World Soccer News.” World Soccer: News Player Interviews, Manager Interviews, Transfers, Fixtures, Results, League Tables, Competitions, Forums, Brian Glanville, World Soccer Awards. Web. 4 Dec. 2009.

[24] “Egypt against Algeria revives some bitter memories (part one), by James Montague – World Soccer News.” World Soccer: News Player Interviews, Manager Interviews, Transfers, Fixtures, Results, League Tables, Competitions, Forums, Brian Glanville, World Soccer Awards. Web. 4 Dec. 2009.

[25] Oliver, Brian. “World Cup play-offs preview.” Audio blog comment. Football Weekly. The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <>.

[26] Oliver, Brian. “World Cup play-offs preview.” Audio blog comment. Football Weekly. The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <>.

[27] “Egypt against Algeria revives some bitter memories (part one), by James Montague – World Soccer News.” World Soccer: News Player Interviews, Manager Interviews, Transfers, Fixtures, Results, League Tables, Competitions, Forums, Brian Glanville, World Soccer Awards. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <>.

[28] “Twenty years on, the ‘hate match’ between Egypt and Algeria is on again | Football |” Latest news, comment and reviews from the Guardian | 10 Oct. 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009. <>.

[29] “George Weah : World Class Football Soccer Player : Biography.” – Humour, Photos and More. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <>.

[30] The African-American Mosaic

[31] “George Weah : World Class Football Soccer Player : Biography.” – Humour, Photos and More. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.

[32] “IFFHS’ Century Elections.” The Introduction Page of the RSSSF — The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <>.

[33] “BBC SPORT | FORUM.” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <>.

[34] “BBC NEWS | Africa | Profile: George Weah.” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <>.

[35] “ – Previous FIFA World Cups™.” – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Web. 12 Dec. 2009. <>.

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3 thoughts on “Africa on the Field

  1. tfghi

    You cannot talk about Mozambique as you did, since it’s anachronic.

    Mozambique in the 1940’s was Portuguese land, so Eusébio was Portuguese by birth, it was granted by law, very much like any other citizen born in Lisbon or East Timor.

    About the commentary above of Eusébio leaving to Inter, that is a myth. It was Italy that shut the doors to foreign players after their disastrous national team campaigns in the 1960’s.

  2. Pingback: Farewell, Black Panther: Eusebio’s glittering career in video, pictures, and words | Planet Futbol -

  3. SLFAN

    An interesting story about Eusébio (that clearly shows how politics can interfere in sports) happened in the late 60’s. He was about to be transferred from Benfica to Internazionale (from Italy), but the Portuguese government interfered and aborted the negotiation. The reason was that Eusébio was considered a Portuguese patrimony and could not be sold to a foreign entity.



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