Last week’s final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations between Senegal and Algeria may have seen the Algerian side emerge victorious, but beyond the pitch, the match happened to feature two countries home to Africa’s most dynamic societies and its brightest prospects for the future. Defying clichéd labels of authoritarianism and poverty, Senegal has shown what a vibrant, successful African democracy and economy can look like. Algeria, meanwhile, turned its post-finale celebrations into yet another reminder of how its grassroots social movements are boldly challenging the country’s entrenched status quo.
This should come as no surprise, as sport has always informed and been impacted by national politics. This is doubly true in Africa. Whereas the World Cup is consistently dominated by a small group of nations, Africa has seen 14 different Cup of Nations winners and six countries reach the final. This makes the tournament truly diverse, and every country on the continent has a chance to advance.
A tournament with high stakes
To understand the stakes for the players involved, one need look no further than the statement by Senegalese Liverpool star Sadio Mané that he was hoping to fulfil his “wildest dream” to be one of just a handful of Africans to win both the UEFA Champions League and Cup of Nations, and that he would “even swap a Champions League for a Cup of Nations” for Senegal.
While Mané’s dreams were dashed and Algeria hoisted the trophy, the fact that these two countries rose to the top of the tournament speaks to their social dynamism and their democratic futures. Senegal, for example, has set itself apart from its African competitors with one of the best systems of youth academies in Africa. It is a rare exception from the general underinvestment in infrastructure and resources for national teams. While both teams’ coaches have links to France, both the Algerian and Senegalese sides were able to count on local staffs that have helped improve their tactical performance.
Many African countries have seen their competitive ambitions undermined by drained talent and a lack of state interest in developing infrastructure. The two teams in the final showed what can happen when countries reverse those trends.
Senegal: democracy tried and tested
One of the first steps requires having faith in the grassroots. In Senegal the scheme to find footballers is not coordinated by the country’s government or football association. Instead, academies are private initiatives that set nationwide standards for excellence. The Diambars football academy, for example, sees its students performing at double the national average in passing exams.
This kind of success is a reflection of Senegal’s socio-political stability, which allows for a strong grassroots development network for young talent to be maintained. This is in part because Senegal is the most stable democracy in West Africa and is enjoying rapid economic growth spurred by a series of economic reforms.
Since assuming office in 2012, Senegal’s president Macky Sall has managed to attract billions of dollars in investment for his Emerging Senegal Plan, overseeing average annual growth of above six percent. Senegal’s economy is already enjoying robust economic expansion, even before oil and gas production starts in earnest in 2022. To make sure the revenue from those new industries goes to the right places, Macky Sall signed into law key pieces of legislation for Senegal’s oil and gas sector this past February, with an updated Petroleum Code to ensure the Senegalese public sees the benefits of extractive projects.
Senegal also has the best record for democratic elections in Africa, and the country has never suffered a coup since independence from France in 1960. Evena recent scandal surrounding the allocation of offshore energy contracts involving BP has helped demonstrate just how far Senegal has come in implementing the rule of law and combatting corruption since the notorious tenure of former president Abdoulaye Wade, with the president’s brother stepping aside and a full investigation underway.
Algeria: democracy in the making?
While the Senegalese have enjoyed democratic government for decades, Algerians are still hoping to secure their own. The Cup of Nations victory marks the second major victory for the Algerian people this year, after they forced president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April after weekly Friday protests against his twenty years in office. The latest demonstrations in Algiers took place just before the match, and many of the same fans celebrating in the streets afterwards have been heavily involved in the demonstrations against the authoritarian one-party rule of Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front.
While Bouteflika left office months ago, Algeria is still undergoing one of the most peaceful and broad-based revolutions in modern history. That revolution has dovetailed with the national team’s success, with Algeria’s qualification for the semi-finals seeing crowds of Algerians defying a massive police deployment to protest against the government. In a similar vein, Algeria’s victory in the final saw thousands once again flood the streets of Algiers to again press their demands for an overhaul of the country’s political leadership.
Despite this ongoing pressure, interim president and consummate regime insider Abdelkader Bensalah remains in post after his mandate expired this month, and polls planned for early July have been scrapped. All the same, an entire generation of plugged-in young Algerians are determined to secure lasting political change.
Faced with rising inequality, limited opportunities, and an often controlled and censored media, they have created alternative spaces online and are highly adept at organising themselves for offline activism. If Algeria’s football triumph gives them added momentum to truly overturn Algeria’s status quo, 2019 could become one of the most important turning points in their nation’s entire history.