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The World Cup, which starts this week, is the most-watched sporting event in the world, having reached more than 3 billion people in 2014. This year, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia will be representing Africa. African teams in the World Cup are rarely predicted to advance beyond the second round, if that, despite outperforming expectations in three of the last four tournaments (Figure 1). Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to think African teams might defy the odds, but just playing in the tournament can provide a boost to national unity and social progress.
Recent research on the connection between soccer and nation-building has found that between 2000 and 2015, countries that even just barely qualified for the African Cup of Nations experienced significantly less conflict in the following six months than countries that did not qualify. According to the authors, individuals seem to be less likely to identify with their ethnic group than with their country after the national team’s victorious path through the qualifiers.
In the past, individual African players at the World Cup have used their global renown to call for unity and peace. In 2005, Côte d’Ivoire’s star striker, Didier Drogba, pled for an end to the country’s civil war after winning the qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup (his country’s first): “We proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared objective: to qualify for the World Cup.”
Drogba’s call for unity is widely recognized for helping make way for the eventual signing of a peace agreement between the government and rebel groups in early 2007. When fighting resumed in 2011, Drogba was nominated to the national Truth and Reconciliation Dialogue Commission, reflecting the role of the soccer star as a peace figure.
This year, Egyptian star Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool striker, English Premier League’s Player of the Year, and …