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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 14:19 GMT
More than just a game
By Farayi Mungazi
BBC Sport

President Mugabe is known more for his love of cricket than football
Football in Africa has long provided much-needed relief from the socio-economic and political problems that plague many countries on the continent.

But the game has also been used as a political tool, and still continues to play a major role in helping to boost the popularity of some rulers or settle old scores with other governments.

The late Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha used the 1996 African Cup of Nations to express his anger over South Africa's condemnation of the decision to hang the human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa the previous year.

The Super Eagles were ordered not to travel to the tournament in South Africa because Nelson Mandela was seen as the leader of a campaign to isolate Abacha's regime.

Even in the best of times, football in Africa has never been insulated from political impact.

Indeed, there have always been political and nationalistic undercurrents whenever big tournaments like the Cup of Nations come around.

President Kagame has pumped a lot of money into Rwanda's Wasps
The latest example is Rwanda's president Paul Kagame, who is a high-profile supporter of his country's national team, the Wasps.

Kagame stands accused by his critics of using football as a vehicle to win public opinion by bankrolling the Wasps and rewarding players with handsome bonuses.

The Rwandese president also sponsors East and Central Africa's annual championship, now known as the Kagame Cup, but formerly called the Cecafa Challenge Cup.

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe had been famously indifferent to the plight of his country's national team, preferring to spend his spare time watching cricket instead.

In fact, Mugabe - the patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union - is responsible for uttering one of the most famous cricketing quotes in history.

"Cricket? It civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket... I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen," said Mugabe when questioned about his love of what many of his people still regard as a colonial sport.

But since the Warriors' qualification for their first-ever Cup of Nations finals, Mugabe has been portrayed in the official media as a long-standing football fan.

"My wife knows and always complains that each time I watch soccer I make a lot of noise because I truly enjoy the game," Mugabe told one of the state-controlled newspapers recently.

Suddenly, years of official neglect of the Zimbabwe Football Association are over and the government is now funding the Warriors.

Nigeria boycotted the 1996 Nations Cup won by South Africa
The information minister Jonathan Moyo even wrote a song for the team, which is given plenty of airtime on national radio.

Critics say it is no accident that Mugabe's sudden interest in football coincides with the worst period of his presidency, and Zimbabwe's maiden Cup of Nations appearance.

Indeed, Africa is awash with examples of autocratic regimes lacking tangible success stories who have hijacked the achievements of the national football team for their own agendas.

Cameroon's long-serving president Paul Biya always makes a point of aligning himself with the country's successful football teams, both senior and junior.

Biya's longevity in politics, according to the Cameroonian opposition, has had much to do with the success of the Indomitable Lions over the years.

In fact, Biya personally intervened and ordered Roger Milla's call-up for World Cup duty in 1990. And when Milla set Italia '90 on fire, the president took all the plaudits, naturally.

Observers in Zambia say it is no coincidence that the country's decline as an African superpower started soon after the end of Kenneth Kaunda's rule.

Kaunda's government allocated huge financial and material resources to the team, then known as the 'KK XI'.

In return, the football team became a potent symbol of national unity, as espoused in Kaunda's 'one Zambia, one nation' philosophy.

It just remains to be seen which political leader will be basking in the glory of cup success come 14 February.

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