The two clubs that participated in the FA Cup this weekend have been stuck in a battle for the continent’s loyalty over the past three decades
The decline of local league football in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s coincided almost perfectly with the rise in popularity of the British top flight.
As the Premier League spread its wings and radiated a lucid and well-produced show, full of history all over the world, apparently a race began for the soul of African fans.
Much of the fandom within the continent before was then centered on Manchester United and Liverpool, the two giants of the English game in the decade that straddled the formation of the Premier League. However, the rise of Arsenal as a force, announced by the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, introduced another horse into the race.
Although the Gunners have not enjoyed United’s hegemonic success, or have the historical history of Liverpool, they quickly gained emotional feedback thanks to Wenger’s affinity for African players.
The Frenchman had had precedents in this regard: while he was in Monaco, he had bloodied George Weah. Wenger left such a profound mark on the 1995 Fifa World Footballer of the Year that Weah admits that “there was no way [he] he would have made it in Europe “without that guide.
“He was a father figure and considered me his son. This was a man, when racism was at its peak, who showed me love, “said Weah The Guardian in 2017.
After taking Arsenal, Wenger signed Weah’s Liberian compatriot Christopher Wreh, and after winning double in his first full season in charge, he brought Nigerian international Nwankwo Kanu to Highbury in January 1999.
This singular act served to strengthen the club’s popularity on the continent. Kanu had been named Africa’s best player three years earlier and would continue to gain icon status at Arsenal, winning multiple FA Cups and championship titles and winning the Africa Footballer of the Year award a second time.
Wenger often returned to the source of African talent, cementing Arsenal’s pride on the continent with the assumptions of the Cameroon midfield dynamo Lauren – who he would reuse as a right back – and Kolo Toure. Both would play key roles in the fabulous Invincibles season in 2003/04, as the Gunners won the title without losing a single game. Today, the last Arsenal championship title remains.
A wave of changes had already started to shake English football in 2003, when Roman Abramovich bought the London club Chelsea. While a series of new signings quickly made the Blues formidable, it was only the following summer and the arrival of Jose Mourinho that the club became a major player in the league.
Chelsea had an African presence in the late 90s in the form of Celestine Babayaro, and also had the versatile Geremi on the books. Really, it was the signatures of, first Didier Drogba and, then, Michael Essien to increase the popularity of Blue in African football.
It was also a good time: both were protagonists of the national teams that were experiencing a return to relevance on the international scene. Ghana and Ivory Coast were on their way to the first World Cup openings and Essien and Drogba respectively had the hopes and aspirations of their nations.
It was also important that they tore the prodigious John Obi Mikel from taking Manchester United. Just 20 years old at the time of her arrival in Stamford Bridge, she was not yet the star of Nigerian football, but it was clear that she would be.
And so it was, just as the balance of London’s footballing power was shifting from N5 to SW3, as well as Africa’s loyalties. Chelsea mania quickly spread throughout West Africa in particular.
Emmanuel Adebayor’s arrival at Arsenal briefly saw that swing once again on the other side. The towering Togo International, by virtue of its Nigerian roots and a monstrous 2007/08 season that saw him named Africa Footballer of the Year, was also able to arouse once again the adulation of Africa’s most populous country , albeit for a relatively short period before his acute departure in 2009.
Excluding the acquisition of Gervinho in 2011, the Gunners would not have entered the market for a key African addition until Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was signed for a record club tax in January 2018.
For their part, Chelsea has seen the likes of Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o playing fleeting but often memorable roles.
It is helpful to consider the tightening of these two clubs on the African continent a bit like a stalemate. As for the Africa Footballer of the Year awards, both Adebayor and Aubameyang had the honor on Arsenal’s side; on the side of Chelsea, Drogba.
There is, of course, a stronger success story in the Chelsea side trophy: alongside Drogba, Salomon Kalou was the centerpiece of the 2012 Blues Champions League triumph.
Both clubs have strongly supported the African players and have been rewarded both in terms of silverware and, above all, in the growth of their respective fanbases on the continent.