To the outsider, Africa is a complex dichotomy, a region where the joyful expressions of tradition and culture take place amid the reality of dire poverty and chronic malnutrition. Home to over one billion people and thus resistant to easy generalisations, Africa is often referred to as the birthplace of humanity, but viewed as a neglected suburb of the modern world. The African contribution to global progress has historically been restricted by exploitation and hampered by the corrosive effects of political corruption and civil war, but despite these endemic structural problems, Africans continue to strive to make their mark on the world.
Throughout the continent, sport creates high profile national figures, many of whom have earned worldwide distinction. Their footprint is strongest in distance running where Ethiopians and Kenyans dominate, but more recently the footballing world has been alerted to the outstanding qualities of an increasing number of players from this emerging football territory and some have made it to the very pinnacle of the game.
The nascent European obsession with African footballers can be partially explained through the cultural influences and physiological attributes they bring to the game. In his excellent book Feet of the Chameleon; A History of African football, Ian Hawkey notes the prevailing stereotype is for the muscular defensive midfielder but argues there is also a high degree of skill forged on arid pitches. Consider the outrageous ability of Okacha and the power of Essien for examples of both.
Hawkey also hints at a strong desire to succeed and achieve, evidenced by the 2000 professional African footballers employed in Europe. Unfortunately this desire has been led to a lucrative market in human trafficking as dodgy football academies charge families costs they can barely afford with the promise of a European career. Hawkey notes that the brutal reality can be busloads of young men being taken to live in squalid conditions in neighbouring countries, playing no football at all.
Thankfully, success is more common. The lower tiers of the European game have seen a huge increase in exports over the last twenty years while a swift glance at any Champions League teamsheet will provide numerous examples of African talent.
Celtic’s group stage victory over Barcelona, which coincided with the 125th anniversary of the club’s formation, was due in part to the performances of two young African men, Victor Wanyama and Efe Ambrose, who defended with composure and determination to frustrate the Catalans. Wanyama even found time to power home a first half header. Their attention grabbing performances on a historic evening provoked some thoughts on the club’s relationship with the African continent and the historical ties and charitable endeavours run deeper than first imagined.
Indirectly, Celtic have acquired the service of a small but growing number of African players in the last few decades, currently evidenced by the presence of Ambrose and Wanyama. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that there will be a residual effect from Celtics employment of African talent as the club’s exposure in the continent continues to grow. Neither is it inconceivable to suppose that in the years to come, a Celtic player will make the shortlist for African player of the year. Ambrose performed admirably in Nigeria’s victory in the Cup of Nations this year but the most likely candidate, assuming Celtic retain him, is Wanyama, who has made a seamless transition from Kenya to Kerrydale St, greatly enhancing his profile and reputation in the process
These players have joined a small tribe of African players who have worn the hoops, most of whom hailed from the West African strongholds of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon. Several came in on loan, including Badr El Kaddouri, Diomansy Kamara, Henri Camara and Landry N’Guemo; others permanently; Oliver Tebilly, Mo Camara, Mo Bangura, Momo Sylla, Jean Joel Perrier Doumbe and of course, Bobo Balde, who until the emergence of Wanyama, had made the greatest impact at Celtic of any African player.
Islam Feruz, to Celtic’s great misfortune, is the one that got away.
Now a UK citizen and Scotland youth international, but born and raised in war torn Somalia before he settled with his family in Glasgow aged six, Islam was the precociously talented striker who Celtic coached, nurtured and educated as a kid. Tommy Burns spoke on behalf of Islam and his family at a deportation hearing helping to secure their legal status, citing the contribution he would go on to make to this country. Feruz moved to London to sign professional forms with Chelsea as a sixteen year old, denying Celtic fans the chance to witness him fulfil his potential in green and white. Those inside the game are unanimous when discussing the outlook for this striking prodigy: Islam Feruz will be a superstar. Far from harbouring any bitterness, Celtic should be proud of their role, not only in his sporting development, but in his life as a whole.
The second component in this emerging Celtic – Africa story, is the development and charitable work undertaken by the club. The Celtic Charity Fund estimates that the club have donated over £600,000 to various causes in Africa, in aid of work all over the continent. The club have formed an official partnership with Kibera Celtic, who were founded on the principles of openness, social inclusion and assistance for the poor in one of the largest and worst slums in Kenya. The Kibera Celtic Foundation deliver programmes linking sport with community projects designed to improve health and education. For the last three years, volunteers from the Celtic Charity Fund have travelled to Kibera to work in local schools and orphanages.
The Legends match between Celtic and Manchester United in 2011, attended by 55,000 fans in aid of Oxfams East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, was memorable for many things, most notably a remarkable gesture by ex Celtic player John Kennedy. His decision to donate his share of the gate receipts from a match that was originally scheduled to be his testimonial, summed up the spirit of the event which raised a huge sum for those affected by famine in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
In the boardroom and the stands, representatives of Celtic, a modern club with a global fanbase, appear to understand that their social responsibilities extend far beyond the parameters of Scottish society, and staff and fans work diligently in the background to ensure those responsibilities are met. The 125th anniversary celebrations focused minds on the true roots of a club that was formed to assist the poor, reminding us that the glory of Celtic is not measured exclusively on trophies won, but also in adherence to the original ideals of its founders.. The clubs involvement in Africa, particularly in Wanyama’s homeland of Kenya, is a noble venture in keeping with that ethos.
If Celtic continue to attract established African internationals while expanding social justice projects in areas of need, the Celtic-Africa story will continue to be mutually beneficial in a continent where football has proven to be a unifying force for the betterment of many. For most of Celtic’s history there has been a strong fan base in Ireland and North America but perhaps in 125 years time there will be Celtic Supporters Associations the length and breadth of Africa, from Nairobi to Dakar, as Celtic become a well known club in a more stable, confident region of the world.