MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — As the Africa Cup of Nations enters its knockout stage, it seems like as good a time as any to focus on football’s capacity to effect change across the continent. The sport’s connection with activism in African countries has been well documented. From the successful 2018 election campaign in Liberia of former Cameroon striker George Weah to the almost legendary account of how, in 2007, Ivory Coast player Didier Drogba helped bring about peace accords in his homeland, ending a five-year civil war. African footballers have a history of going above and beyond. Despite some believing that sports and activism should not correlate, the examples mentioned below demonstrate otherwise.
1. Mohamed Salah
The first of these African footballers is Mohamed Salah. Arguably the most famous living Egyptian, Mohamed Salah has shown his humanitarian side in recent years, alongside his footballing prowess. In 2018, the former Basioun resident invested in various vital developments in his home city. Some of these include an ambulance unit and a water treatment plant, which alone cost around $450,000 to set up. The same year, he donated $282,000 to Tahya Masr, an Egyptian state-run development fund for the country’s somewhat unstable economy. In 2022, Salah donated $156,000 to help rebuild a fire-damaged church in Giza. By spreading his money across various charities and institutions, Salah stands as a shining example of how footballer can re=distribute their vast fortune.
2. Andre Onana
The Cameroon goalkeeper may have been only a fleeting presence at this year’s AFCON, but Andre Onana’s impact on the continent is not only in relation to football. Alongside the Spanish NGOs Bisturi Solidario and Cirujanos en Accion, the Andre Onana Foundation has been providing life-changing pediatric services, mostly surgeries, for an average of five hundred children per year since its inception in 2020. The charity started in Onana’s home country but has since spread across West and Central Africa.
3. Wilfred Zaha
Although raised in south London, Wilfred Zaha has consistently supported his homeland by playing for Ivory Coast in multiple international tournaments and, more importantly, through the Zaha Foundation. The footballer and his family set up the foundation in 2017 and since then, Zaha has committed 10% of his salary to support the organization. At present, this money helps fund the running of an orphanage in Ivory Coast run by his sister. It also supports the Zaha Academy, enabling children from the country’s capital, Yamoussoukro, to partake in sporting activities and progress through the ranks of a semi-professional team that Zaha and his brother own.
4. Kalidou Koulibaly
The COVID-19 pandemic was somewhat of a watershed moment for celebrities generally. For every famous person who quietly and unselfishly donated to charity and genuinely attempted to help those in need, there seemed to be at least three doing little more than posting tone-deaf statements on social media. Luckily, Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly was one of the former. Many know him for his charity work in Naples and London, two cities he made his name as a footballer. In June 2021, at the height of the pandemic in his homeland, he bought “two ambulances as well as numerous stretchers, hospital gowns, PPE and thousands of protective masks” and then paid for these items to be shipped to Senegal from Naples.
These African footballers have not only provided financial aid but also challenged the notion that Africa can only rely on outside assistance. While foreign aid remains important, these instances demonstrate that individuals who have grown up in these communities are best placed to help direct the allocation of aid and provide hope for real, lasting change.
– Rory Giles