[b]Mihir Bose:[/b] Football is no longer a game but a driver of growth and business


Last weekend’s English Premier League match between Sunderland and Arsenal does not on the face of it merit much attention. A regular Premiership match, one of the rare ones played at 3pm on a Saturday, it ended in that classic score: 1-0 to Arsenal, after the Gunners weathered a late Sunderland assault.

Yet it is what happened in a committee room next to the Stadium of Light, followed by discussions in the one of the executive boxes of the stadium, that shows how the game has radically changed. This proved that football is no longer eleven men against eleven men on a park, but a vehicle of commerce and business. Not just in this country, but all over world and, in particular, Africa.

So on Saturday, the High Commissioner of Uganda, Isaac Sebulime, a Manchester United supporter, drove to Sunderland all the way from London to address a select gathering of people to tell them why his country is ready and willing to welcome investors. The headlines may be of French troops intervening in Mali and there are even suggestions that failed states in Africa cannot manage themselves and require a new form of western management.

But on Saturday, the story was of Uganda, far removed from the days of Idi Amin, trying to demonstrate that it is no longer a basket case. Indeed, it offered vast investment opportunities in infrastructure, education and agriculture. The country has oil, but for the High Commissioner, while “oil might be the game changer, it is not the only thing. We see oil as the prime mover in the process for our schedule of transformation. Oil is going to stay with us for 30 years, industry and agriculture is going to be with us for all our life.”

And the reason he was in Sunderland was because the north east club is sponsored by Invest in Africa, a non for profit organisation which got off the ground in June last year. Michael Amanging from the organisation in describing it gives it a wonderful altruistic glow. “Invest in Africa is a partnership of companies with a history of doing business in Africa. They have a vested interest in seeing it progress and coming together to say listen we have been a success and you can be too.”

Now you may think that companies that have discovered this wonderful investment place would like to keep it a secret. But Amaning, having worked for UK Trade and Investment, told me, “Companies in Africa understand that it is easier to work together rather than work independently. Africa is a big continent, 54 countries. So if one company is investing in a particular country it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to take up the market of some else.”

This altruistic theme is emphasised by Tullow Oil, an oil operating Irish-UK company, and the major backer of Invest in Africa. Tullow has invested heavily since 1986 and seems keen to share its prosperity with the world. Sunderland’s connection came because Adian Heavey, Tullow Oil’s CEO, was pally with Niall Quinn, who used to run the club. Quinn has since gone, but this north east club now sees Africa in much the same way that Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal see markets in South East Asia. Hard as this may be for many football followers to believe, Sunderland has an African dream.

Or in the words of Amaning, “Sunderland has ambitions in Africa to increase their brand. 300 million watch the Premiership in Africa. Those are big figures. If you look at Ghana, Nigeria , Tanzania there are avid fans of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool. These are big clubs. There is no reason other English Premiership clubs can’t get a name in Africa. Sunderland want to increase their brand recognition. They see Africa as a place where they want to do business and sell their brand.”

The club’s marketing of its brand in Africa closely follows that of the partners of Invest in Africa, Tullow Oil and Ernest and Young. So Sunderland has gone into Ghana for, as Amaning admits, “Invest in Africa is focussing on Ghana to start with because our partners Tullow Oil and Ernest and Young have the biggest footprints in Ghana. We want to use their footprint to make real tangible change on the ground.”

The footprints Sunderland have already established in Ghana include an academy and a partnership with a local football team, Ashanti Kotoko. They have already had some Ghanaian players, like Asamoah Gyan, but the club, says Amaning, has much wider horizons. “It is about developing Africa’s talent. With academies they want to harness Africa’s really good players. There are many good African players who just don’t make it because they are not discovered.”

And then, getting very eloquent about this sponsorship he soars, “Sunderland and Invest in Africa both have a vision of Africa, both trying to impact on Africa. It made sense to come together. Invest in Africa is an unique brand. That’s why it is a perfect idea to sponsor Sunderland.”.

And by sponsoring Sunderland, Invest in Africa can reach out not only to the 300 million Africans that watch Premier League, but a much larger world wide audience. “We can tell the world,”, says Amaning, “Africa is investment ready now. Football is telling that the story of Africa of 20 or 30 years ago is obsolete. That was part of the fabric of the past, the story of corruption and bad governance. You can study that but you are going to miss out on the future, a very bright future. Africa has changed. It is not because they have oil or found diamonds. It has changed because governments have become much more responsible, much more transparent. They are really empowering and listening to the citizens that are voting. The Diaspora is coming back to Africa and playing a part in that. This is what is driving growth and not just minerals.”

And just to emphasise this after the match Amaning took me down to the lounge reserved for players’ children and wives for a chat with Stéphane Sessègnon (pictured), the Benin international. The midfielder, who came to Sunderland from Paris Saint-Germain, had played wide on the wing on Saturday. And regular Sunderland watchers, well aware the player might have moved in the January transfer window, felt he had his best game for the club ever.

Sessègnon spoke in French, with Amaning translating, and made all the usual noises about how his own personal achievement counted for little given the team had lost. He also repeated words we have heard so often from foreign players who come to England as if they are reading from a script. So while he knew nothing about Sunderland when he moved there, what impressed him was the passion of the English crowds. “The passion for football anywhere in England is really strong, the fans show this whichever city you are in.”

Sessègnon did set himself apart from many other players when it came to the question of racism in the game.”I have not experienced racism either in England or France.” And he made it very clear he would not walk off the pitch if he was racially abused. “Racism comes in difference intensity. If somebody has enough, fair enough. But my view is you should continue playing. You should show you have more value of yourself than what they say. You don’t care about what they say. It is based on ignorance. It is absolutely not correct. You should not condone it. But you should support officials and continue playing.”

He really became eloquent when he started speaking about it means to be an African player in Europe. So he said emphatically, “It is not a burden being an African player, but an opportunity. As an African you have to be an ambassador for your continent and country and behave in a way that is respectful and promotes the image of Africa as a place of opportunity. For me it is a pleasure to tell people about Benin and the culture. It is a small country and I am an ambassador of the country and happy to be one.”

His words about Invest in Africa did sound a bit scripted. “Invest in Africa is a powerful message. It touches me as an African. When I go back to Benin I can say I am in a club that has links and is doing things for Africa as an investment decision.”

However he did burst into peals of laughter when I asked him how many of his Sunderland players had asked him about Invest in Africa. Had, for instance, Adam Johnson asked him about it? It is clear the message of Invest in Africa is still to get out to the larger Sunderland squad, although Sessègnon reassured me, “These players are human and they have got heart. They would understand this is a positive thing. So actually it is way of highlighting the positivity of Africa and developing Africa. And I am sure if I was to ask other players to contribute to my foundation they would not hesitate but do it.”

This is the MC Sessègnon Foundation. And while Sessègnon is not the first African player to set up such a foundation – Didier Drogba and others have similar foundations – there is no denying his pride that his foundation based in Benin and Ivory Coast helps improve health and education. “It is about helping people realise their dreams in Africa that are not in that position to do so themselves.”

How much the partnership of Invest in Africa and Sunderland will enable either to realise their dreams is debatable. But what cannot be denied that football, once a simple game, has now reached heights its founders could never have dreamt of.

Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99

Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose