As news of the demise of Kofi Annan, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize winner, broke early on Saturday and tributes to the illustrious Ghanaian continue to pour in from all over a planet he once led for almost a decade, one word doesn’t seem to be going around much: football.
Annan was associated with a lot during his 80-year-old life, but the beautiful game barely gets a mention; Google his name together with ‘football’, and you won’t find many hits. The few that come up, though, suggest an interest in the sport that was certainly more than passive.
“Yes, I am a football fan,” Annan revealed in an interview back in summer of 2010 at the time of the Fifa World Cup. “I love the game and I played it as a young man up to and through my university years. I played on the right wing because I was a sprinter.”
Don’t be. Given his background, it’s easy to see why Annan had a soft spot for — and even an active involvement in — football. Born in Kumasi — the hub of the Ghanaian game — just three years after the formation of the city’s biggest club, Asante Kotoko, Annan grew up in a climate in which football thrived.
For one with roots so deeply steeped in tradition (both of Annan’s grandfathers were tribal chiefs), and Kotoko standing tall as traditional and political as a football club could be even in those nascent days, it couldn’t have been lost on a young Annan just how relevant and effective a tool the ball could be in society.
He grew up, graduated from Kumasi’s premier university and left the shores of Ghana, eventually earning his place at the very core of a far bigger realm and its noble ideals, but Annan never forgot the significance of football as a great constant. If anything, an evolving world only grew and further highlighted the game’s influence. Annan’s preoccupation for much of his successful professional life came to revolve around — among other objectives — achieving and maintaining world peace during his stint as the world’s top diplomat and either side of it, while also leading the fight against threats to worldwide equality like racism and other forms of discrimination.
In discharging his duties, Annan couldn’t fail to notice the distinctly powerful ability of sport — especially football — to unite a world divided along several lines. It is, indeed, a force so potent Annan was moved to acknowledge openly more than once.
“The World Cup makes us in the UN green with envy,” Annan confessed in a speech on the eve of the 2006 Fifa World Cup final, delivered at an event held in host nation Germany to unveil the logo of the next Mundial. “As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the United Nations. You could even say it’s more universal. Fifa has 207 members; we have only 191.”
Annan, on that occasion, went on to extol football’s virtues: about how it proves a great leveler among nations of varying might, breeds a positive spirit of competition that would yield a great deal of good if adopted in the not-so-progressive sphere of diplomacy and politics, “illustrates the benefits of cross-pollination between peoples and countries”, and contributed to easing the path to relief and full recovery in conflict-ravaged Angola and Cote d’Ivoire at the time.
Seven years later, Annan — long after the end of his tenure as head of the UN — visited the Zurich headquarters of Fifa, world football’s governing body, where he reiterated some of the convictions stated prior.
“There are some wonderful things that can be achieved thanks to football,” he told Fifa.com. “It has the power to bring people together, even in countries blighted by conflict, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine. It is a wonderful tool.”
Between those two events, though, Annan found time to express a more personal interest in football when, as Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, he was present at South Africa 2010 to promote a thought-provoking alternative guide to the Fifa World Cup. And when he did, Annan proved that even he — a globetrotter bar none who embraced different nationalities and imbibed just as many cultures — had his unflinching loyalties, in response to a question on which side he fancied for glory at that showpiece.
“[Ghana] have a good team but a rather young one,” said Annan, in the same interview quoted at the outset of this write-up. “Some of the experienced players are not going to be able to play because of injuries but this is a young team, they have a strong heart and determination and I would not rule them out. I will be rooting for them.”
That dream almost came true, with the Black Stars putting up their finest performance at the three World Cups they’ve been at thus far, only falling agonizingly short of a ticket to the last four and, possibly, to the final in Johannesburg’s Soccer City Annan made an appearance at.
Ghana wasn’t the only country with a strong scent of football Annan called home, however; Switzerland, where he spent his latter years and died on August 18, was another. And even though the city of Bern where his incredible life came to an end isn’t exactly Zurich or Nyon (where Fifa and Uefa, the two most powerful associations in football, are based respectively), it was still close enough to football’s beating heart — just like Kumasi, where it all began for Annan.
Cradle-to-grave, football was clearly a running theme in the deceased octogenarian’s life, even if not as prominent as his remarkable career in world politics and international diplomacy.