George Weah, Liberia’s president and Africa’s only ex-footballer head of state, is the only player from the continent to have won the World Footballer of the Year award, popularly known as the Ballon d’Or.
Whilst it has been a long time, 27 years, since the great Weah won the Ballon d’Or, other African superstars having been winning differently and off the field, like Senegal’s Sadio Mané, who has been winning hearts for his generous philanthropy work in his home country.
When the latest Ballon d’Or was won last week by French star Karim Benzema, former Liverpool forward Mané was presented with a new prize, given in recognition of the “best social initiatives carried out by committed champions.”
Named the Socrates Award after the Brazilian legend who co-founded the Corinthians Democracy movement in opposition to the ruling military government in the 1980s Brazil, the new award recognises the importance of football in society, as more than just a game, but a platform to transform lives.
And it a plus that the inaugural award for boundless generosity has been handed to someone from Africa, a continent that is perennially the receiver of handouts.
And, as they say, charity begins at home.
A man of his people 🌍✨
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) October 18, 2022
Bayern Munich striker Mané has transformed his home village in Senegal, Bambali, to near town status.
With a population of 2 000, Bambali used to be a remote and poor village with no infrastructure to talk about.
It now has a hospital built as a cost of nearly half a million US dollars!
The maternity section of the hospital is particularly a welcome development, as Senegal has a mortality rate of 350 baby deaths from 100 000 births.
From healthcare, Mane has is also landing a helping hand to education in his homeland. He has spent at least $250 000 on scholarships for pupils, and also buying laptops for the best performing students.
Why would I want ten Ferraris, 20 diamond watches, or two planes? What will these objects do for me and for the world?
Mane, who won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal in Cameroon earlier this month, also understands that livelihoods of the people in his home village isn’t as easy as it should be, so every month he gives every family an allowance of $70.
That’s not all, on top of all that, he has funded the building of a fuel station, and he has installed 4G internet connection to improve connectivity.
Now, that’s what you call giving back to the community. Mané, by nature, is a humble human being, and that was on display at the Ballon d’Or awards last week when he accepted his prize.
“First of all, I want to say good evening, everybody,” Mane said to the crowd.
“Myself, I am really happy to be part of you guys tonight. Of course, like you say, sometimes I am a little shy to talk about it, but I’m really happy to do what I can for my people and to make things better.”
In a previous interview, Mané once said:
“Why would I want ten Ferraris, 20 diamond watches, or two planes? What will these objects do for me and for the world? I was hungry, and I had to work in the field; I survived hard times, played football barefooted, I did not have an education and many other things, but today with what I earn thanks to football, I can help my people.”
Mane has set the pace, but thankfully he is not the only African footballer, past and present, who has set up charity projects across the continent.
Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o launched a football academy in Tanzania alongside local musician Diamond, while former Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba has a similar project in Kenya.
Former Ghana and Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien organises charity matches, known as ‘Game of Hope’, a charitable football match played annually featuring a team of African stars and another representing players from Europe with the proceeds going to his foundation to keep the projects running.
There are many more, and the good deeds come in different packages – some small and some big – but all hugely important and greatly appreciated by the communities.
For example, former Zimbabwe and Mamelodi Sundowns striker Nyasha Mushekwi – who now plays in China – few years ago bought a luxury bus for his old team back home, CAPS United. Previously the Harare club didn’t have a team bus and had to hire a coach to travel to training and for matches. Now, sometimes the Zimbabwean national team uses that bus when in camp.
So no help is too big or too small!
Turning back to the Ballon d’Or. It’s been nearly three decades since an African last won the biggest prize. Since then, he has since won a national election to become his country’s president.
Why has it taken this long for this continent to produce a second Ballon d’Or winner?
Well, to be fair, this is simply because footballers from Europe and South America have been in a class of their own over the past 27 years. In fact, no Africa, since Weah in 1995, had made the top three shortlist for this prestigious awards, until Mané now.
But maybe it’s coming closer and closer! Mané came second in the recent awards, and the winner, Benzema, is of Algerian heritage.