The ever popular African sport – football – is one that will never go out of style. Known as soccer in many other parts of the world, the game of football is one of skill and tact. But, it is more than just a game; football on the continent possesses different faces. Some may argue for or against its political, cultural and social leanings, but football plays a strong role in facilitating positive change. Emmanuel (Manny) Abbeyquaye was involved in the game in a coaching and management capacity when he realized it could be used to encourage young people to live healthier, more productive lives and to make positive life choices.
In 2008, he established the Centre Spot, a community interest organization in the West Midlands after a few years of painstaking work navigating his way around the complexities of everything thing it would take to create an organization of its stature. His focus? Young people.
“Centre Spot now has a team of 15 employees, including coaches, mentors and administrative staff and runs community projects, offers coaching sessions and provides physical education support in schools”, Abbeyquaye told IJINLE AFRICA. One of the center’s many programs is the “Out of Africa” campaign, a project that was uniquely created to profile the contributions and history of Africans to the game of football in the United Kingdom.
“The Out of Africa” Campaign is a magical project, full of flare, determination and passion. It is a journey through history showcasing the contributions of Africa and some of the world’s greatest players to the game of football in the UK”, Abbeyquaye said of the campaign’s mission.
For Abbeyquaye, the ultimate sign of a job well done would be the campaign’s ability to inspire people around the world to find out more about the history of African footballers in the United Kingdom, whether it be through a friendly debate about who the highest scoring Ivorian or the best Cameroonian player is — or even a history lesson in schools about what it was like for an individual like Arthur Wharton to play as a black African in Victorian times. Abbeyquaye’s initial interest in the project was sparked by Wharton, who was the first African to play professional football in the United Kingdom.
“Everyone can name a professional footballer who comes from Africa, but how many actually realize that the first African footballer played in Britain in 1865?”
Building upon a unique connection
Wharton was born in James Town, Accra, a few miles away from where Abbeyquaye grew up, with a mother who was originally from Cape Coast, and a father who attended Richmond College (now Mfantsipim Secondary School), the same secondary school Abbeyquaye’s father attended. Wharton also lived 30 minutes away from where the Centre Spot currently operates. Not regarding this unique connection as a mere coincidence, it spurred him to find out more about the contributions of Africa to ‘the beautiful game’.
“At a time where racism in football is still a hot topic, I felt this project would not only educate, but it may help unite the Diaspora, as black players have been intrinsically linked with football in the United Kingdom for centuries.”
The road to kick-off
Following the Centre Spot’s ethos, which is to provide opportunities for all, the project was completed by young people from the local community in Sandwell who were all between 14 and 19 years of age. They spent several months receiving training in archival research techniques, interviewing and media development before embarking on the lengthy research that was needed, not to mention organization and preparation for the twenty plus interviews they arranged with ex and current footballers, as well as celebrities and football clubs. The culmination of their hard work was the making of the documentary “Out Of Africa”, which was produced and edited with the volunteers, and an exhibition that was opened by professional footballers including Cyril Regis, Kim Grant and Peter Odemwingie, alongside the Lord Mayor of West Bromwich in November 2012. As intended, the exhibition has a permanent home at Sheffield’s Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD), but has, and will continue to visit more cities around the country.
Everyone can name a professional footballer who comes from Africa, but how many actually realize that the first African footballer played in Britain in 1865?
“Through the production of the film, I was able to identify and highlight the stories of a countless number of professional footballers who agreed to be involved with the project and pledged their support”, Abbeyquaye said. “The project was a way to showcase some of the charitable work being carried out by former and current African footballers who have played in the UK, as well as other organizations who use football as a platform to raise the aspirations of young children from disadvantaged circumstances in Africa.”
This seemingly successful project was one that took a lot of patience and determination. A major obstacle was the time taken to research and obtain correct information for the project, as some of it was not necessarily documented. Trying to schedule interviews with professional footballers who are very busy people, with extremely tight schedules was also a challenge.
“There were many occasions where an interview had been arranged, and the volunteers were setting off, or were on the motorway, only to get a call from a club’s press office, or a player’s manager to advise that player was unavailable.”
In spite of this, the players all realized that this project was much bigger than they were and rose to the call. “We were extremely grateful for everyone who agreed to, and allowed us to interview them, as we know they often don’t get a minute to themselves.”
Winning goals all around
The Out Of Africa Campaign was always intended to be an evolving project which fundamentally educated, but also worked to forge links and break down barriers. For one, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), and FURD, who both endorse and support the project, have utilized the findings for their work in tackling racism.
“Shortly after the exhibition opened,” Abbeyquaye mentioned, “I also worked with FURD to support them in the development of their project and subsequent film about Arthur Wharton. The project allowed me to assist the BBC in reuniting Arthur’s granddaughter, Sheila Leeson with her relatives in Ghana, and to visit Jamestown to commemorate Wharton’s life and achievements.”
Another role this project has played is in helping to challenge stereotypes about Africans and the African continent. The project has highlighted some of the positive achievements of players like Peter Ndlovuwho with more than a hundred caps playing for Zimbabwe, and who has scored over ninety goals, and Yakubu Ayegbeni of Nigeria, who is only the fifth player in history to score hat tricks with three different teams.
Then there are better known players like Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba, who is well known for his form on the field, but how many know that he is also a Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations? The project teaches about the very first black African football team that came to play in the UK from South Africa in 1899; one can read about their match reports against top of the league clubs like Aston Villa and Newcastle United, which was incredible considering black South Africans had no access to organized sport at the time, and only learnt how to play football by watching British soldiers. The project also shows how African players have gone from being considered as not technically and tactically good enough to play in the top leagues in Europe, to becoming household names and powerhouses in their own rights.
Abbeyquaye’s vision for the “Out of Africa” campaign facilitates the inclusion of school aged children, providing information that is not, and has not been typically taught as part of the school curriculum. As an extension of project and to broaden its audience, a schools’ pack was produced for teachers, filled with activities that link the National Curriculum for children aged 8 to 13 in subject areas of English, Geography, History and Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE).
“The schools’ pack is also an important resource that targets the youngest and most impressionable people in our communities, our young people. The schools’ pack has been designed to teach school children lots of information about Africa and its colorful nations in a fun, stimulating way from the discovery of the types of food eaten, to a comparison of hourly wages. There are professional players who have also given advice about diet and fitness, helping budding footballers on their way and sharing the hard work and effort that they had to put in to get where they are. The activities also include exercises on developing anti racism strategies.”
Images: Arthur Wharton – The first African professional footballer; Kenya’s Victor Wanyama being interviewed for the project & Kim Grant, Efe Sodje, and Peter Odemwingie at the “Out of Africa” campaign launch.