February 26th 2018

Sports / In-Depth

Africa has a lot to learn from Cameroon's 1990 World Cup team, which unified the country at a time of great peril

Sports can be a powerful tool for social, tribal and religious integration

By Theodore ObenTuesday, 28 Jun 2016 18:26 EAT

Cameroon world cup team - 1990

Sports can be a powerful tool for social, tribal and religious integration. Most people are passionate about one sport or another and that passion can act as a medium of integration. In sport our goal is to win but we do not always win. We however have come to accept losing as a fact of life. In society our goal - I believe - is to live a healthy and comfortable life. In religion, we seek divine intervention to live comfortably on this planet and thereafter.

Even though we cannot change our tribes, we can change the way see and interact with people from other tribes, social and religious groups and sports provide a formula for this – tolerance and the graciousness of accepting to win or lose. Like in sports, we can choose to tolerate others and accept the fact that we are all players in our community, nation and the global arena irrespective of our tribal, social and religious inclinations.

Sports is a universal, it does not differentiate actors along social, tribal or religious backgrounds. When we play as a football, basketball or volleyball team we play as a unit, not as people coming from different backgrounds. When we run, we compete as sportswomen/men, not as people coming from different backgrounds. The harmony of the unit is fostered by that ambition to win but when people lose, they accept their fate and embrace the winners as we often see on television or witness in stadia and arenas. Life can borrow from sports the harmony that exists amongst competitors – winners and losers – and the way they accept the outcomes of the competitions.

Sports also teaches us that success does not depend on one’s social class, tribe or religion. Most of the best footballers have come from socially deprived communities. Ronaldo, Zico and Romario, who are among the world’s renowned footballers, came from the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. They started football on crowded streets and made it to the top of world football, winning trophies and accolades.

Likewise, social integration in Europe, particularly in France and England has been promoted by the presence of players of foreign origins in the national teams. Sportsmen like Zinedine Zidane of France and Lewis Hamilton of England have had some positive effects on the way people from their race/backgrounds are viewed in their countries.

The greatest footballer of all time Pele was from a socially deprived community. Pele and several other footballers with black origins (Ronaldinho, Robinho and Dida from Brazil; Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira from France) have done more with their on-pitch achievements to improve racial integration in their countries.

Cameroon’s most celebrated football team, the team that made it to the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, was dominated by players from one tribe. Over half of the players, including the legendary Roger Milla, Francoise Omam-Biyick, Andre Kana-Biyick, Emmanuel Kunde and Jean-Claude Pagal and Joseph-Antoine Bell, were from the Bassa tribe in the Douala region of Cameroon. At the time of the World Cup, the opposition, civil society groups and NGOs were demanding  political inclusion and Douala was the epic centre of violent anti-Government protests.

However, the team was more unified than any other team that Cameroon has produced since then. Protests were suspended during the World Cup and the reception that the team got after their World Cup performance from the entire country was unprecedented. The unifying spirit of the team and its performance was a major factor in compelling the Government to listen to calls by the opposition, civil society groups and NGOs to accept multipartism. In a highly polarized atmosphere, the football team made Cameroonians  realize how important it was to talk about their problems with one another.

African nations have not harnessed the power of sports as bridges for social, tribal and religious integration. In Kenya, even though we still have teams that are supported along tribal lines (Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, Thika United), these teams rely on players from different communities and tribes. They fight for the best players irrespective of the tribe that these players come from. We need to take advantage of the growing influence of sports in Kenya to heal the divide between social, tribal and religious groups.

A Cameroonian national, Theodore Oben worked for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for 20 years, coordinating UNEP's Outreach programmes including youth and sustainable development issues and the sustainability and mass spectator events. He led and published UNEP's environmental reviews of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He now runs his own sports marketing company and consults in green and sustainable buildings and sustainable development in general.

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