By Jean Lukaz MIH
Among the many misdeeds of Ghana’s invisible public diplomacy, football has rose to the challenge of propping up the image of Ghana in recent times. Not only has the rate of heart attacks among fans gone down as a result of frustration from the pathological bunch of Black Star losers during matches but also the Brand Ghana pressure is high from their graduating performance in the recent FIFA World Cups Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010.
Ghana’s soft power in the area of football is increasingly becoming seductive and an important determinant of the nation brand. Football has long become an European cultural export and an active part of their Public Diplomacy efforts but with the Americans getting tagged as ‘come back losers’ just as the Europeans are beginning to look like ‘imperial losers,’ the South Americans are retelling the history of civilization with their feet and Ghana is standing up to the challenge. Brand Ghana now has the burden of holding the fort for Brand Africa’s Public Diplomacy. Not even all the branding in the world could keep South Africa in the game. It’s definitely ‘impossible’ in South Africa unless you are part of the Bafana Bafana team.
Football, however, has a dual function in public diplomacy and ranks among the good, the bad and the ugly. It can make peace and war. When Pelé visited DR Congo in 1969, both factions in the civil war agreed on a ceasefire so that they could see Pelé play and the same football brought about the famous 13-day Football war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 sparked by the World Cup.
American athletes, Russian gymnasts, Brazilian footballers, Ethiopian and Kenyan runners, all infer from the prowess of the nations’ sports brands: the latest on the block being the Ghanaian national team, the Black Stars. Ghanaian footballers have joined the roll call above and sports, one of the determinants and communication channels of the nation brand and also a tool of public diplomacy of sorts, have the characteristic of highlighting a country and its people and their abilities and values from the way its national teams compete in international contests. The only problem with sports as a sub-brand is its ephemeral deployment only at international contests. This means that for the period when there is no event the nation brand literally goes to sleep.
Several opportunities have slipped by for Ghana to leverage her nation brand on the international scene and this prompted the new leadership to set up a quasi-academic unit within the presidency to run a Brand Ghana Office that is yet to be more than a lame duck. Brand Ghana is still lurking with sleeping branded campaigns. The ‘Culture, warmth and much more’ brand that was developed by the tourism sector and received much international coverage has yet to receive national attention. President Obama came and left just as Kofi Annan left and came back and it was all a transient massage of our psyches. In the absence of a National Public Diplomacy Strategy (NPDS), Ghanaians have often taken the challenge to show their true colours on such occasions.
Our national colours have never been so beautiful for Ghanaians to be donned in them until Germany 2006. Even then, it was not until the Blacks stars won the third match at the group stage that the euphoria became endemic. Come the African Cup of Nations ACN/CAN 2008 and 2010 and Ghanaians would not feel the drag until the finals where Egypt was mocked by a bunch of Black Stars teenagers. Experience ultimately rewarded the Pharaohs.
In 2003, Germany started shopping for a new national brand, a series of campaigns to improve the country’s image abroad, seeking to replace the strong-minded stereotypes of Nazis and sunbed-stealing tourists with a more relaxed, trendy and even sexy depiction of its people and language. FIFA World Cup Germany 2006 did the trick. In a welcome statement the ‘Land of Ideas’ website states: ‘We want our guests to see the best side of our country (obviously not the worst side: racism!) – with the ideas of the people who live here.
Yet the Ghana is probably remembered more for booting out Czech Republic and ‘almighty USA’ than Germany’s land of ideas.
As Ghana heads for the World Cup finals taking each stage at a time, will the Government of Ghana adopt a new approach to Public Diplomacy and activate Sports or simply push a Football Diplomacy?
In order to win the rights to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup leaders of the post-1994 government and soccer administrators used sport and cultural diplomacy as enabling instruments to assert South Africa’s credentials. Nigeria, together with Iraq and other 26 African countries, had used sports for the purpose of attaining a foreign policy objective in 1976 when it boycotted the Montreal Olympic Games in protest against New Zealand’s rugby contacts with South Africa and further in 1978, Nigeria and other African members of the Commonwealth boycotted the Edmonton Commonwealth Games in view of New Zealand’s breach of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement when she kept playing sport with South Africa.
The question is, if sports should actively become a tool of public diplomacy, must it be a government function or must it be privatized? Government led public diplomacy creates distrust in an environment where the publics are prejudiced against the nation brand. To be effective, public diplomacy must be a function of publics, not governments and the best way to practise public diplomacy is through ordinary people. Only private actors have got the credibility to make a difference. This means building relationships in the spheres of everyday life in sports, business, arts and entertainment. These forms of connection are important because they promote a two-way conversation.
Remember President Sarkozy is personally investigating the state of the French team just as President Jonathan is messing with the Nigerian team after their dismal performances during the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010. If Football means so much to governments as their Public Diplomacy tool, why would they gamble with ineffective coaches who may not necessarily share the national vision? Maybe the Italians, British and Americans would need a New Public Diplomacy Strategy incorporating football as a full-time cultural institution. Or maybe it should just be football and no politics? Have sports really a place in foreign policy? Can sports be a proactive tool instead of its usual reactive position?