Ghana's national team has seen both its image and its World Cup campaign damaged by a dispute over pay. The players were allegedly considering going on strike for their final group game against Portugal, a move prevented by the delivery -- via the President's private plane -- of $3 million in cash. The dispute echoed events surrounding Cameroon's national team in 2002, 2006 and 2014, and Nigeria’s this year too. Arguments over the size of the players' bonuses hindered both their preparation for the World Cup, and their progress through it.
Some analysts imagine that West African countries are uniquely prone to this type of discontent, and that their footballing institutions are some sort of metaphor for the national condition, where the best intentions are waylaid by greed and corruption. Certainly, the allegations of match-fixing recently leveled against the Ghanaian Football Association have helped to fan the flames of this particular stereotype. It is a temptingly simple analysis, but it lacks merit.
There is probably a more prosaic issue at play: Anyone who stars for their country at one of its beloved sports is in a position of great strength; a position which, it must be said, it is almost a surprise that athletes do not abuse more often. As noted in the BBC World Service documentary, "The Burden of Beauty", Brazil long used football as a means to project soft power abroad, the success of its national side held up as proof of some sort of cultural supremacy by the country's suffocating military dictatorship. The football teams of Ghana and Cameroon are among their countries' proudest exports; they are brands almost as synonymous with national identity as Guinness is to Ireland or IKEA is to Sweden.
If we look, also, at the disputes in question, we notice common elements: that player power has apparently been rallied by footballers plying their trades in Europe -- Ghana's Sulley Muntari and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o. There is nothing like moving to one of the continent's top teams to make an African footballer supremely aware of his market value, and this may explain some of their hard-nosed approach to negotiation. From the players’ perspective, Ghana and Cameroon are making a great deal out of them, in terms of both money and prestige, and they deserve an ample piece of that pie -- even if that stance threatens their participation at major sporting events.
Ruthlessly pragmatic as that stance may be, it is not unique to Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. In both 2011 and 2015, members of England's Rugby World Cup team engaged in protracted negotiations before the tournament, even threatening to boycott the proposed departure dinner if agreement was not reached. In 1998, the West Indies, despite being one of the best cricketing nations in the world, remained among the worst paid, with their tour to England at risk over money.
The spectacle of Ghana players kissing bundles of money was an ugly sight, which played out very poorly across social media channels. But if their delight was appalling in its presentation, it may very well have been righteous in its substance. This protest appears to be childish and immature, with players putting cash before country. Yet it also raises wider issues. A footballer's career is short, and he will often have overcome extraordinary odds to be where he is; indeed, the struggles of African players to make it in Europe are well-documented. It must therefore be galling for these players, tournament after tournament, to see officials of their national football associations feeding lustily from troughs filled by their talent and hard work. When we are about to castigate athletes for their outbursts over pay, perhaps we should look beyond them to their paymasters; and reflect that their anger may be the symptom, and not the root, of the true problem.