By James Woods*
Sports across history have been used as both political and social tools, especially in promoting the interests of a country in the international arena. This means that sports can be used in establishing relations between two or more countries. Sports form a key component of a country’s culture and ensure that its values, prestige, and beliefs are protected through various sporting activities. For instance, in the quest to foster peace and unity between communities, sports have previously been used in bringing together conflicting communities. In addition to promoting cultural values and national interests, sports have been used as a catalyst for tourism development if successfully leveraged in terms of destination branding, infrastructure development, and other economic and social benefits.
Sports activities such as the Olympics and World Cups present the perfect sporting avenues that a country can use to benefit economically and socially. In 2010, South Africa hosted the World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event, and effectively reshaped its image and that of Africa. Not only did the country benefit socially, but also economically, evidence of the potential that African sports have. African governments can use sports as tools to advance their economic agenda and improve the lives of Africans. However, different barriers have impeded the plans to exploit sports-related activities.
These barriers are centered on diplomacy, where the relationships between two or more countries have made it hard for sporting people to exploit available opportunities. For instance, Africa has an incredible wealth of talent imported overseas, playing in the most prestigious sporting avenues. The English Premier League, Spanish League, and other leagues in Europe and Asia are huge avenues where African players have benefitted financially. However, while some players have benefitted, countries hardly benefit because of several factors. The lack of funding challenges with visa restrictions and tax-related issues have prevented Africa from exploiting its full sporting potential.
In football, the financial packages associated with transferring a player from one football institution to another are areas that many African countries have less focus on. Even though some talented players have been fortunate and migrated to Europe and Asia because of their football skills, a lot of talent remains unexploited due to the three factors mentioned above.
From a funding perspective, many football academies in Africa lack the right funding to carry out their operations effectively. Compared to football academies in Europe or Asia, Africa’s academies have lagged, as they do not have access to finances. While foreign companies remain interested in collaborating with African companies to propel football and other sporting activities forward, strained diplomatic ties have impeded developing these partnerships. For the talent in Africa to reach international standards, huge investment is needed, and the input of governments in establishing the right diplomatic ties is critical. It will not only pave a pathway for investment in football but also other investments in related infrastructures. Hence, improving their country’s economic outlook.
The second problem that has inhibited growth is the visa restrictions between African countries and other foreign countries. Research has shown that over 6,000 teenagers attempt to become professional footballers in Europe. However, due to poor diplomatic ties, talented players face challenges in their ascension to European football. This has opened risky avenues such as traveling via boat across the Mediterranean and exploitation by rogue agents who use illegal means to access and deal with teenagers.
While this is just a glimpse of the African football field’s many issues, there are other barriers birthed due to the poor diplomatic ties. Establishing new diplomatic ties and improving the already existing relationships will go a long way in addressing the existing challenges that the sports industry in Africa faces. Turkey is one example that has exemplary diplomatic ties with African countries. No surprise that many athletes have used Turkey as a means of entering Europe to actualise their football dream. More relationships like Turkey are needed to develop the African football scene and sports altogether.
Moreover, sports diplomacy can be used as an interest promoter and a convenient platform where African countries negotiate new political and economic ties, enhance bilateral and multilateral relationships, and consolidate existing ones. African countries have a wealth of opportunities in sports, inferring that it requires significant foreign and local direct investment to spur sports, industries and socio-economic development altogether. Using sports diplomacy as a foreign policy approach will help African countries take advantage of their rich culture to create a friendly and positive image. This will attract the right investment and improve the tourism sector from those that share cultural empathy for African athletes. One of the key investment areas is building football stadiums and other sports-friendly recreational spaces, critical in economic and social development.
In order to achieve their different interests, African countries must engage in diplomatic representation to and negotiation with governments, the regional and national organising bodies of sport, global firms that sponsor competitions, global media firms, and other global organisations. Governments must communicate their intentions to improve sports to the global public and establish the needed diplomatic ties. Success in forming diplomatic relationships will open up both local and international opportunities to Africans and their governments, effectively improving the living standards and economies altogether. Failure to address the existing diplomatic challenges will continue to lock out these opportunities, and all that will be left in the end are regrets on what could have happened if the right diplomacies had been in place.
* James Woods is a Director at Pan-African sporting entity, Rainbow Sports Global. He also specialises in strategic communications, reputation and crisis management. James previously worked in diplomacy and currently advises governments and business leaders across the globe helping them achieve long-term economic and political goals.