I remember exactly where I was when Nigeria won the 2013 African Cup of Nations; when Sunday Mba, an Aba-born midfielder plying his trade in Warri, smacked in Nigeria’s biggest goal in the last decade. Older generations would say similar things about Sunday Oliseh nearly breaking the goal at the 1998 World Cup, or when the Dream Team sank a star-studded Brazil team.
Sport, as we have argued before, can unify a country. Beyond that though, sporting success has often generated significant social and political rewards for those able to capitalise on it. Politicians, especially, have used sporting victories as platforms to dispense their message or leveraged them for a simple popularity boost. Given the potential of sport as a tool for socio-economic mobility for young Nigerians, it is worth exploring why investing in sports would be a good idea for our leaders, too.
How Sport affects domestic politics
On a purely selfish level, there is a lot to gain for Nigerian politicians from investing in sports. Fewer things cut across the political, religious or ethnic divide than a nation succeeding in sports.
Yet it is not just about winning, but about being involved in the narrative of the winning side. For a young democracy, Cote D’Ivoire has fairly active citizen engagement. The ousting of Laurent Gbagbo, president for ten years, in favour of Alassane Ouattara was one result of this.
But when the second term campaign came around in 2015, Ouattara was given the perfect boost: the Elephants triumphed at the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea. This helped a troubled political climate that included planned protests from supporters of former President Gbagbo. While many agree that Ouattara performed credibly in his first term, the unity of the nation after their victory helped curb planned low turnout and gift him a second mandate.
We see similar stories in more developed democracies. France has won the Men’s World Cup twice: 1998 and 2018. On each occasion, the President enjoyed a massive jump in opinion poll ratings, as each of them turned on the style and charm to cultivate it.
In 1998, Jacques Chirac was especially lucky. He led the pre-tournament optimism and post-tournament celebrations as France decimated holders Brazil in Paris. He saw a 14-point increase in his approval rating. Meanwhile, the victory of the multiracial team—nicknamed Black Blanc Beur (Black, White and Arab)—helped smooth over tensions from riots the year before. His embrace of this French identity would also help him to re-election in 2002 over the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
More recently, embattled President Emmanuel Macron took the 2018 World Cup by storm. Pictures abound of Macron celebrating a goal in the Final by punching a fist in the air and receiving a much welcome similar boost to his then low popularity ratings. Macron embracing another multiracial team, led by prominent black players like Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, helped abet the 'president of the rich' toga that he had been draped with as citizens responded to his cuts and taxes with strikes and protests.
In all these examples, the leaders honed in on a message by tying their fortunes with that of the team and enjoyed the political fruits of their labour.
Sport can transform your international position
If sporting success helps with domestic politics, it can also give a leader more international clout, particularly through hosting.
South Africa offers a great example. Despite more recent analysis pointing to scandals ranging from bribery to misspent legacy funds, Zuma was able to use the exposure of the first World Cup held on African soil to cement his leadership and image. South Africa’s, and Zuma’s, political clout grew as a result; later that year, they were invited to join the influential BRICS grouping.
It also helped in bringing an increased number of tourists to the nation, something that can translate into soft power and cultural influence. But perhaps most tellingly, amid negative rumblings about insecurity before the tournament, Zuma’s profile improved after an assertive and positive showing.
Sport can also be used as a vehicle to thaw wounds.
In 2018, Putin was a pariah on the international stage. The G8 had kicked Russia out, and opposition to their annexation of the Crimean region in Ukraine reached its peak. As billions of people turned their attention to Russia to see their favourite stars in action, Putin went on the charm offensive.
The previous depiction of Russian supporters as hooligans was replaced by warm memories of an exciting tournament and few incidents. The on-the-field success of the hosts—who reached a maiden quarterfinal—contributed to the festive mood. Meanwhile, countries like Sweden who initially refrained from visiting backed down when their teams reached the knockout stages. World leaders attended matches that their teams played in, most notably the presidents of France and Croatia for the Final. It's no wonder the USA has already won the bid as joint hosts for the 2026 edition.
Sport: A double-edged sword
But sport can be a double-edged sword, particularly when the attention of victory or hosting turns towards more unsavoury aspects of a regime. Think about the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics or the protest by Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská against Soviet domination of the Czech people. Their causes may have been just, but from a political perspective, they dealt deep blows to the leaders at the time.
The power of sports to unite is not in doubt, but it's what it unites for, towards and in some cases against that matters. In an era of mass content production and social media, leaders can tap into the incredible amount of support and excitement when a nation does well in a sports tournament, and in some cases, it might be that split difference between gold and silver, politically.
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