Almost nowhere on earth is football followed as passionately as in Africa –– possibly only in South America is it equally revered.
It is loved by Africans from all walks of life and from all across the continent. This week, I gave the opening address at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards in Accra, Ghana. This has afforded me a good opportunity to reflect on Africa's relationship with football, and how it can help deliver a brighter future for our young people.
I believe we need only look to the Liberian presidential election for a fine example of the transformative power of football.
Against the odds, and in the mighty wake of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, newcomer candidate George Weah snatched victory, and today is president of one of Africa's most rapidly developing countries.
Before he was a presidential candidate, of course, Mr Weah was an outstanding footballer –– whose career spanned great clubs like Paris Saint Germain, Marseille, Monaco and even English premiership giants like Chelsea and Manchester City.
A striker of fearsome reputation, Weah has been described as the greatest footballer to emerge from Africa –– confirmed in 1995, when he won both FIFA Footballer of the Year and the highly valued Ballon d'Or. In 1989, 1995 and 1996, he also claimed the top prize of African Footballer of the Year, crowning that in 1996 with his African Footballer of the Century award.
The power of a footballer entering frontline politics cannot be overstated, for two reasons:
First, it shows that politics is accessible to all; to any ambitious individual who dares envisage a way he or she can contribute to their country's future.
Second, it makes politics interesting and relevant to young people. If our continent is ever to reach its full potential, it is our young people who are going to deliver it.
Africa's young are already shaping today and redefining tomorrow with their creativity, passion and innovation. I believe that the greatest gift that our generation can give them, is to continue to provide platforms for aspiration, recognition and inspiration.
But ideas like "opportunity" or "potential" can be an abstract enough concepts for adults, never mind the younger generation –– many of whom have been overlooked by the decisions of their governments not to allow funds raised from investors to trickle down into stronger education systems, apprenticeships and advancement.
In football, the notion of opportunity is far from abstract. Football has always been a unifying factor and a great tool for promoting integration and development.
But more than that, it is a global currency –– a language spoken in the U.K. as much as it is in Brazil, China and Nigeria.
And in football, we see most tangibly the bold young role models and ambassadors of Africa who are inspiring others and have set the pace in their pursuit of excellence.
If a footballer can become the head of a nation, then why not a football coach, a medic or a marketing executive?
Of course, we must be careful not to set false expectations. Football is affected by the same attrition rate that applies to other sports, in that very many are called, but few ultimately make the dizzy heights that most dream of.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama pointed out that young people in the U.S. may have good economic empowerment and entrepreneurship role models in the music industry, but that it was unlikely that each child would grow up "to be the next Lil Wayne" –– so children also need to work hard in school.
The same can be said of football: not all of our children will grow up to be the next George Weah, Abedi Pele, Didier Drogba or Jay Jay Okocha –– but these role models still offer young people a concrete example of the hard work that goes into the pursuit of excellence.
The example of football goes far beyond the 22 men or women who stand on the pitch for 90 minutes each week. I know this, because I have seen the extraordinary depth of support services that go into creating the finished product of a football match, and the transformative role they play when properly looked after.
Over the past year, Aiteo has been supporting sports development in Nigeria, leading a partnership agreement with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to provide financial support to the technical team of Nigeria's national team for the next five years.
In the months since the partnership was formed, Nigeria have won more games than they have lost, and qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Aiteo has also made significant contributions towards developing local football by underwriting the costs associated with organising the Federation Cup, Nigeria's equivalent of the FA Cup, helping smaller teams grow and improve on the national stage.
With coaching roles, training roles, marketing, advertising, commercial partnerships and merchandising all part of the infrastructure of the newly global Nigerian football team, no child need grow up to be the next Alex Iwobi, in order to benefit from the transformative power of football. If a footballer can become the head of a nation, then why not a football coach, a medic, or a marketing executive?
So, as I stood on the stage to open the CAF Awards, the winners were very clear to me before the awards had even been handed out: the true winners were every young person who saw that event –– saw that the eyes of the world are on Africa, and that a future for each one of them exists in which they can go beyond their school, their hobbies, or their parents, and truly embrace their potential.
Because the way we conceive the future sculpts the present.
Africa's Young People The Real Winners At CAF Awards